Theater Review: The Roaring Girl, by Dekker and Middleton, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

I rarely leave a theater at the intermission, but last night, at The Roaring Girl, performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, my partner and I did just that. After what seemed like an interminable first part, the interval finally came, and we both looked at each other and discussed how bad the play was. We decided that we didn’t need another hour of it, and headed home.

The Roaring Girl, written by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, around 1607-1610, is, as the RSC says, a “subversive city comedy about the feisty Moll Cutpurse who unmans all who cross her path.” Unfortunately, it’s a bad play, and the current RSC production tries very hard, perhaps too hard, to make it better.

The language is poor, the jokes coarse, and the plot is just too complicated to follow. It has something to do with a rich son who wants to marry someone, whose father doesn’t want the marriage to happen, and after that, I just got lost.

It seemed that, with this bad play, the actors and director tried to make something out of it, and tried too hard. The actors were all over-acting, trying to camp it up and make the bad jokes funny. There were lots of in-jokes about London, which no one laughed at, crude sexual innuendoes, which were just embarrassing, and overall poor timing that made the jokes fall flat.

While Lisa Dillon’s opening of the play – sitting alone in a chair, speaking an introduction – showed her as a potentially interesting interpreter of the “roaring girl,” Moll Cutpurse, once she was on stage with other actors, she tended to go overboard.


Photo by Helen Maybanks, for the RSC.

Set in the Victorian period, with a beautiful set and excellent lighting, the production was visually sumptuous. The choice of music, however, was disturbing. It was loud and overbearing, a combination of rock, jazz and ska, with one scene where Moll comes up from the center of the stage, playing an electric guitar and singing. It was so loud – I was sitting in the third row – that it was annoying.

I’ve only had a couple of experiences in the theater when I couldn’t wait to leave, and this was one of them. (Last year’s Globe Theatre production of Henry VI in York was one of them.) But this Roaring Girl just dragged on. There was one redeeming scene with Mistress Gallipot and her husband, about a letter the former had received and a secret lover, which was delightful. In fact, Lizzie Hopley, as Mistress Gallipot, was the only high point for me in the play. But I had no idea what that scene had to do with the rest of the play; what plot there is is so convoluted, and there are so many characters, that it was too hard to follow.

The Telegraph, in its review, called the play “over-the-top and underwhelming,” saying, “this effortful, strident production proves a botched shot at a play that in more sensitive hands might have yielded richer comic rewards.” I’m not sure that’s the case; it’s just not a good play.

Whats On Stage said, “My overriding impression is of a production that lacks confidence in the source material and so decisions have been taken to ‘improve’ it. On the whole, these decisions only seem to highlight the inherent weaknesses in the script and consequently make for an unsatisfying evening in the theatre.”

And that sums it up well. One goes to the theater hoping to be entertained. The Roaring Girl does not deliver.

(It’s worth noting that there were lots of empty seats in the theater, and looking on the RSC website today, I see that there are plenty of tickets available, even for today’s performance; at the time of this writing, 1:30 pm, about 175 seats. The RSC has been advertising this play a bit to spur sales; during a recent trip to Birmingham, I saw posters for The Roaring Girl in bus stops. It would be unfortunate if this were someone’s first experience seeing a play at the RSC.)