In a production that is consistently energetic, brilliantly designed to interest the eye and convey the era in which the play is set, and full of apt activity throughout but carefully paced for the characters to have moments of stillness and contemplation, Thomas Dekker’s play is directed by Phillip Breen so that it convinces us easily of the masterpiece that it is.
Like all masterpieces, The Shoemaker’s Holiday is very much of its era and yet timeless; and with a dramatic comedy not about aristocrats, but firmly centred on the artisan classes living in a recognizably urban and teeming London, this production is both set clearly in the time of its writing and yet constantly provocative of topical comparisons. Philip Breen’s totally period staging and allusions convey layers of meaning to the audience at speed with a cast well-drilled in movement, meaning and a sure conviction of the poignancy of the tale underlying the madcappery and japes.
While Henry V, down the street at the Globe theatre in 1599, was celebrating heroic victories like Agincourt, Dekker was showing at the Rose the impact of war on the Home Front. The subject of the play is part comic Romeo and Juliet – an aristocratic young man, Rowland Lacy (appealingly portrayed by Josh O’Connor), in love with the bourgeoise Rose Oatley (Thomasin Rand) and neither family very happy about what they perceive as a misalliance. Forced to go off to wars in France, Rowland pulls a trick and returns to hide in London as a Dutch shoemaker (much comic cod Dutch is spoken by him as a running joke) – and we follow his fortunes among and sympathies with the artisans. Meanwhile, Ralph Damport (a very touching Daniel Boyd) is forced to leave his new wife for the fighting and returns maimed and desperate to find his lovely Jane (Hedydd Dylan) has disappeared. She is, in fact, about to be tricked into a marriage with wicked Hammon (Jamie Wilkes) who has shown her Ralph’s name among the war dead. With David Troughton as the Falstaffian shoemaker boss Simon Eyre, who rises to be Lord Mayor of London by the end of the play (a nice bit of social fantasy?), the busy skein of plots is convincingly and clearly conveyed and the deeper pains and issues of the characters are amply implied or shown among all the rough and tumble.
Music and movement enhance the experience of this often-neglected play. The king who appears quasi-ex-machina at the end of the story might be Edward VI or Henry V even though the show was written in the reign of Elizabeth I and played before her by royal command. Why a King in the era of a Queen? It doesn’t matter. He’s an ideal and idealized monarch, a mixture of royal metaphors. And though the play ends as a comedy and with dancing and marriages and is quite a romance in its way, the dark shadow of looming battles in France is invoked and Ralph, though he has been reunited with his Jane with the help of his artisan peers, is still going to have to live with his injuries and disfigurement for the rest of his life.