Riotous new comedy from writer Richard Bean (One Man Two Guvnors), directed by Phillip Breen (The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Shoemaker's Holiday).

Award-winning playwright Richard Bean - he of One Man, Two Guvnors fame - is the impressive talent behind this ‘riotous new comedy’, here being co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Hull Truck Theatre. Set in the spring of 1842, its central character is the governor of Hull, Sir John Hotham, a man charged by Parliament with the task of denying King Charles I entry into the city.  

“The reason the play is called The Hypocrite,” explains Richard, “is that Sir John told some people that he was for Parliament, and others that he supported the king. He was tasked by Parliament with securing Hull’s arsenal but later turned to the king's side, refusing to supply the Parliamentarian Thomas Fairfax with powder and munitions.”                                          

The production stars Game Of Thrones’ Mark Addy (pictured) as Sir John and longtime television favourite Caroline Quentin as his wife, Lady Sarah Hotham.  

Harebrained schemes, lewd jokes and divided loyalties characterise this latest comedy by Richard Bean, coming to the RSC's Swan Theatre via the playwright's native Hull. Inspired by the local legend of nobleman John Hotham as instigator of the English Civil War, The Hypocrite celebrates Hull's history to mark its newfound status as the latest UK City of Culture.

In true Shakespearean style, Bean never lets the truth get in the way of a good story, though there's more of fact about the plot than you might think. With echoes of his smash-hit show One Man, Two Guv'nors, Bean interrogates the myth of the man as the heroic father of parliamentary democracy, picking up on his real-life switching of allegiances to present him as a fickle, pompous and prevaricating double-agent. In the title role, the excellent Mark Addy plays off Royalists and Parliamentarians against each other, matched by Caroline Quentin as a wife whose marital double-crossing rivals his own political adultery.

And it's exactly as silly as it sounds. A strong ensemble cast together with Max Jones' set and an onstage folk band led by Josh Sneesby as “The Ranter” evoke a riotous 17th-century world, as boisterous and swaggering as any city comedy from the era. There are loads of in-jokes clearly conceived for the Hull crowd, but Bean hasn't forgotten his RSC audience, littering the show with more and less obvious references to Shakespeare. And then there's the stuff that requires no specialist knowledge: the Big Bird-esque costume donned by the formerly rationally-minded Durand Hotham (John's son) to impress a lover; the ancient servant Drudge, frequently thrown in cellars, shut in chests and hung up like an ornament on the walls; the bed that nobody can look at without feeling instantly aroused; and John Saltmarsh's band of free love hippies, embracing sin as a gift from God in polar opposition to the increasingly dominant Puritan doctrine.

Funniest of all are Jordan Metcalfe and Rowan Polonski as the sheltered, dandyish and libidinous young Duke of York and Prince Rupert of the Rhein, courting Sir John's children while disguised as fishwives. But there's also great stuff from Asif Khan as Hotham's verbose and over-zealous eldest Jack, Sarah Middleton as his drama queen teen daughter Frances and Pierro Niel-Mee as the Malvolio-esque Durand.

In this chaotic clash of larger-than-life characters, historical and contemporary gags, there are some great lines and flashes of slapstick brilliance, but perhaps a few too many ideas for it all to fully hang together. At nearly two and a half hours long, it's a long haul for a comedy, and doesn't quite sustain its hit-rate throughout. For all the frantic careening about the stage and and soap opera-style near-simultaneous exits and entrances, the pace can sometimes feel quite leisurely, with plenty of good turns – like the glowing ghost of a murdered girl played with deadpan earnestness by Ben Goffe – which are simply on a bit too long. It's more zany and original, but not as slick as the real Renaissance and Restoration comedies the RSC has staged to great success over its last few seasons, and could do to lose a bit of flab. At its best it's Blackadder – but at times it does stray nearer Upstart Crow.

There's also a sense of some missed mileage in the contemporary resonances made much of in the programme. Grant Olding's wonderful songs explore a theme of democracy and enfranchisement that's only touched on in the body of the play. Still less prominent are the sense of a divided nation and pan-European tension that link this era to our own. Neither of these are the primary point of the play, of course, but it would have been nice to see more of the political teeth Bean bared in the brilliant Great Britain back in 2014.

That aside, there's enough here to make this a thoroughly entertaining evening, with plenty of jokes that leave the audience in absolute hysterics. Moreover, it certainly does its job of staking out a claim for Hull's cultural and historical richness, shedding light on a story little-known outside the city, yet of obvious national importance. The Coventry City of Culture Bid team will doubtless be paying careful heed.  

Reviewed by Heather Kincaid

4 Stars on Thu, 06 Apr 2017

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