Drolls, Brice Stratford tells us in the show’s scholarly introduction, were originally performed by half-drunk actors in covert locations on raucous evenings during the Puritan Interregnum. Stratford and his fellow performers (whilst their setting and sobriety are all of better repute than their historical forefathers’), revive and exhibit that original raucousness.
It feels both wickedly old and excitingly new.
First, let us put this show in context. Robert Cox popularised the droll at a time when theatre was officially banned by Oliver Cromwell. The Owle Schreame may be the first company to revive the form in more than three hundred years. Droll is a rough-and-ready rehearsed reading neither polished nor elaborately produced. It is a bit more than script-in-hand (they know their lines); but not much more. The idea is to get these scripts back on their feet, to move them around and see what happens.
The three plays presented are elaborate farces: the humiliation of hubristic cuckhold ‘John Swabber’, the imbecile-comedy of ‘Simpleton’ and the rapid-fire five-minute jig ‘Simpkin’. All involve cuckoldry, disguises, deceits, mishaps, ever more untenable misunderstandings and topsy-turvy logic.
For a work-in-progress piece, Droll is fantastic (sometimes messy) fun. There are moments – one in particular involving some milk – where the audience are literally brought to tears with laughter. Statford and the other actors (James Carney, Emma Woolf, Canavan Connolly and Laura Romer-Ormiston) revel in the plays’ convoluted plots, brash humour and bizarre sense of justice. There are some exquisite touches, in the way certain double-entendres are landed or a certain costume is interpreted. The songs – of which there are many – are playfully arranged, both for the naffness of the rhymes and toe-tappingness of the (presumably new) melodies.
No doubt, though, the drolls lose something by being estranged from a setting and staging more comparable with the original. The threadbare direction also means that not all lines blaze with their full comedic potential. Now that The Owle Schreame have got these plays moving, they might want to get them out. This work asks for the clandestine glow of late-night oil.
We leave convinced that the droll is a form bursting with modern possibilities. Droll makes the case for this without aiming to explore all of them. As such, it feels both wickedly old and excitingly new.