The choice of Wallingford's Corn Exchange Theatre by Thistledown Theatre for its production of Rebekah King's new Civil War drama The Lady's Mad was full of local associations given that the King chose Oxford as his base from January 1644 to July 1646, and also that the early Parliamentary leader John Hampden was cut down in a skirmish just eight miles away at Chalgrove Field.
The plot involves the arrival at the home of Sir Arthur and Lady Hester Cavill, he a Parliament man, she a Royalist, of a small detachment of foraging Roundheads. Led intriguingly by Mary Legge, ('Mad Moll'), a supposedly divinely-inspired Joan of Arc figure, they demand victuals and equipment. The Cavill household is to an extent torn by contrary allegiances and hampered in the robustness of its response by the fact that, her husband Sir Arthur being away, his redoubtable wife Hester takes up the cudgels for the King.
The play is bookended by balladeers declaiming in rhyming couplets – in the epilogue their contribution was over-extended, if not outright redundant– before we reached the scene-setting proper, introducing the principal theme of what authority is properly exercised by a woman, no matter what her rank, in the temporary absence of her husband (expressed as: 'Should a wife act in full compliance with her husband's wishes?'). King portrays this society as stratified, with the place of a man and a woman fixed. This is challenged by the matriarchal Lady Hester, reflecting upon: '..... an equal quantity of men tear their land apart with a quantity of thought'. This was combined with daughter Anne being upbraided by son James for venturing into a man's business: 'There's no reason for you to know about [politics]'. The theme is located in subject matter that's currently something of a staple of new drama, and here I didn't think the writer managed to shine any new light on it.
Moll, described as 'some Cockney Amazon who wears men's clothes', makes her first appearance by means of a long – overlong, despite the very good Emily Saddler's success in injecting variety into it – monologue, and is not short of confidence, announcing: 'Today I am the hand of God that writes upon the wall'. That there would be a climactic confrontation between her and Lady Hester was signalled from a long way out, but it fell a little flat when it came, containing prolonged musing on the nature of madness that lacked spark.
The excellent Sarah Pyper, whom I last saw as Jane Austen's Emma in 2016, has considerable stage presence and here, in a delightful flower-speckled beige dress, she had just the right measure of peremptory authority in voice and bearing, coupled with practical sense. Impatient of windy prophecy and speechifying, she tells her sister Eleanor in mid-flow of spouting couplets: 'Open the window and bother the barn owls!'. As Eleanor, affected and thoughtless, Laurence Goodwin did her best in a tricky part, since her eloquence comprised little but hot air, though I laughed at the cheek of her description of Mad Moll: 'God does not choose his prophetesses from the gutter', followed by calling her 'a coarse hermaphrodite'.
The other members of the cast did well, with Hannah Wilmshurst lively as Charlie Cavill among three parts, and Craig Finlay a sturdy, no-nonsense lieutenant, but all were a bit hampered by an overload of rhetoric in the script, where naturalistic dialogue would have served better. I also felt there was a certain uniformity of emphatic voice and studied diction by the cast that slightly over-egged the pudding, especially in this small, 40-seat space.