By Stephen Jeffreys
Theatre Royal to 3 December
Haymarket, London SW1 4HT
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 30 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7930 8800
Review: William Russell 29 September.
Going spectacularly to the bad.
The problem with debauchery on stage these days is that given what one can see on line, on television and in the cinema it tends to be startling unshocking. Once upon a time the lavishly staged and strongly cast production of Stephen Jeffrey’s play about John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, might have had Aunt Edna heading for the street long before the interval. Not any more.
Wilmot, poet, playwright and a hell bent on destruction rake, leader of a group of like minded debauchers known as the Merry Gang, was a Restoration courtier indulged, until, that is, he went too far with a play about the state of England. The royal indulgence, as is the way of monarchs, was withdrawn. Charles 11, himself no prude, treated him for a while as a surrogate son.
This is, in many ways, a classic Haymarket production with a splendid set, part brothel, part palace by Tim Shortall. Production values are high, as they always are in this theatre. The play first staged in 1994, has undergone several re-writings by Jeffreys and this is more or less the version staged in 2014 by Glasgow Citizens.
It covers Wilmot’s decline and fall – he died from syphilis aged 33. As Rochester, Dominic Cooper, the sex god from the History Boys, starts off strongly – he has a fine opening speech warning the audience of what is to come – but somehow it all goes down hill as the evening proceeds. And, once he is bedraggled and his courtly garb soiled and torn, he starts to look much too like Baldrick for comfort.
Nor does anything on stage really shock. There is a blow job scene, one in which the king has his way from behind with a whore, and to open act two a rather coy performance by the ladies in the cast of one of Rochester’s song from his play Sodom in which they wield and wave large dildos.
Rather than a really stiff drink which takes the breath away Johnson’s production turns out to be more like a soothing cup of Horlicks. There are, however, lots of things to enjoy. Cooper is a strapping figure of a man, an almost there matinee idol, Jasper Britton is splendidly regal and ruthless as the king, and Ophelia Lovibond and Alice Bailey Johnson charm as the women in Rochester’s life who were not whores.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: Dominic Cooper.
Charles 11: Jasper Britton.
George Etherege: Mark Hadfield.
Elizabeth Barry: Ophelia Lovibond.
Elizabeth Malet: Alice Bailey Johnson.
Tom Alcock: Will Barton.
Harry Harris: Cornelius Booth.
Billy Downs: Will Merrick.
Molly Luscombe. Mrs Will Ufton: Lizzie Roper.
The Earl of Dorset: Richard Teverson.
Jane: Nina Toussaint-White.
Director: Terry Johnson.
Designer: Tim Shortall.
Lighting: Ben Ormerod.
Sound: John Leonard.
Composer: Colin Towns