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REVIEW: The Hypocrite at the RSC 'Belly laughs ahoy'

Caroline Quentin as Lady Sarah, with Mark Addy as Sir John Hotham
Caroline Quentin as Lady Sarah, with Mark Addy as Sir John Hotham

Steve Sutherland reviews The Hypocrite at The Swan Theatre – on until Saturday, 29 April

You know that Julius Caesar wot’s on next door at the RSC right now? Forget it. This is nothing like that.

I mean, when was the last time you heard mighty Caesar, even given his many trials and tribulations, complain that he’s, “sweating like a kestrel”? Never, I’ll warrant. And that’s because, this particular simile (or is it a metaphor?) mangling perspiration with birds of prey is just one of many below the belt blows uniquely delivered to the Bard’s beautiful language by the hero/villain of our piece, Sir John Hotham of Hull, a man who likes to poop in the river off his own bridge. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the English Civil War as they never, ever taught it at school.

Hewn from the same bloated oak as Will Shakespeare’s Falstaff and splendidly played with maximum gusto by Mark Addy, Hotham is a blustering rogue intent on securing a couple of grand to dowry out his daughter Frances, a demented flapper played on the perpetual verge of orgasm by the brilliantly dippy Sarah Middleton. .

To get his gauntlets on the dosh and in a welcome echo of playwright Richard Bean’s other great success, One Man, Two Guvnors, Hotham engages in a cunning plan to play off the king against his parliament, such skulduggery inevitably landing him in both sets of bad books. Much hilarity ensues. Then more. Then more…

If there’s one thing Bean is not averse to it’s over-eggs-and-baconing the pudding and the gags rain down like slingshot. If you need an if-you-like-that-you’ll-like-this, don’t look too much further than Blackadder. The Hypocrite works the same formula, bringing modern cynicism to bear upon past traditions and behaviours. Indeed, Danielle Bird’s Drudge is like Baldrick in reverse, a pretty, quick-witted serving wench in every way the superior of Hotham except, as he constantly reminds her, in sex and bloodline.

Hotham’s match is his busty, scheming battle-axe of a wife, Lady Sarah. Their bickering, obscenity-laced relationship is Basil and Sybil Fawlty time-machined back a few centuries. Caroline Quentin now officially owns the terms buxom and fishwife by the way, and woe betide anyone mad enough to put up an argument. Then there’s the coconut clip-clopping of horse hooves which accompany Ben Goffe’s diminutive, lisping King Charles, a straight throwback to Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Nicht.

There surely can’t have been so much fun rammed into one RSC show in aeons and director Philip Breen once again displays the love of high jinks and heavy mechanics that made his Merry Wives Of Windsor such a hoot a few years back. The drawbridge scene is a particular killer. As is the start (which is actually the end!) Plus the ghost. And the cross-dressing princes with neat moustaches. Plus the bit about the foreskin. Plus… best stop lest we trigger the spoiler alarm.

There’s only one petty gripe – the nagging desire to saddle the farce with some serious political portent in the shape of some didactic Mumford-And-Sons-y type folk songs which grate against the wholesale frivolity. It’s a clumsy device in comparison to, say, the heart-rending impact of Blackadder’s final scene going OTT in the trenches.

Still, mustn’t grumble. Soon enough we return to Hotham advising his wife to stay out of politics and get back to such womanly pursuits as washing her pony and shaving her back.

Loosen your corsets, ladies and gentleman, you’re in for a belly laugh.

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