Watching a new Richard Bean play is always a treat worth undertaking. The writer, who previously produced such fabulous comedies as The Heretic, The Big Fellah, Harvest and the smash hit One Man, Two Guvnors, has here returned to his Hull roots for a big, bawdy trip through history. It is a fun evening, with a rambunctious, energetic cast, but lacks some of the depth of his other work.
Co-produced by the RSC and Hull Truck Theatre, The Hypocrite marks Hull's place as 2017 City of Culture with a return to the dawn of the English Civil War. Our hero is the Governor of Hull and the Member of Parliament for nearby Beverley, Sir John Hotham. A real-life figure, the play charts the choice between him serving the King or Parliament, with each one posing a risk to his life. At the same time John must deal with returning sons and finding a husband for his daughter, as well as a cheating wife.
Bean has taken the real-life story and crafted a bawdy farce on top. Unsurprisingly, given that this is an RSC production, Shakespeare is mentioned often. Upon learning that his daughter has discovered the Bard, Sir John laments "not that acrimonious, wormy scrote". However, the play closely resembles the work of another writer of the time, Thomas Middleton, and in particular Chaste Maide in Cheapside. Not only is its humour more consistently crude than the Bard's (not to deny that there are a number of mischievous jokes and cheeky incidents in Shakespeare's oeuvre), the play's cross-section of class and intermingling of such individuals feels far closer to Middleton's comedy. There is no barrier of interaction here between prostitutes, Members of Parliament, maids and princes. All characters are equal in the ridicule they can receive in The Hypocrite, and I could have spent this entire review listing off all the best insults used. "Overbosomed prune" indeed!
This production is exemplarily played by a cast on form. Headed up by a commanding Mark Addy as Sir John, the play also includes fabulous work from Caroline Quentin as Sir John's wife, Sarah Middleton as his daughter, and Jordan Metcalfe as the Duke of York. The production's slapstick comedy is outstanding and often builds to frenetic and intensely gratifying moments of hilarity. However, away from the comedy the play feels weaker in its attempt at crafting any emotional resonance and, beyond a sweet performance from Laura Elsworthy as Sir John's loyal maid, there is little in the play that leaves an impact. The best of the Bard's comedies leave an impression long after leaving but this is not something The Hypocrite quite achieves.
The Hypocrite seems to work on the principle that momentum must be kept up at all times. And for the most part it gets away with this, with a series of guffaw causing japes and one-liners littering its path to a rowdy finale. There isn't much more to it then an interesting chapter in the English Civil War cheekily told and boisterously performed. But it is a lot of fun whilst it lasts.