With Mark Rylance currently adorning our TV screens as a rather suave Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, it seems like the Tudors are enjoying a burst of popularity. Yet one could argue that they never really become unpopular, instead unerringly proving to be good fodder for an unceasing amount of books, television series and films. Compared to, say, the execution of Charles I or the reign of William and Mary, the Tudors remain interesting owing to their wonderful oddities. With this dynasty fact is always stranger than fiction, no matter how much of it we write about them.
So the basic subtitle premise of Living Spit’s Elizabeth I, ‘Virgin on the ridiculous’, is on to the right path, because there is something more than a little ridiculous about old Lizzy with her lead-painted face, her teeny-tiny waist and her hallowed virginity. Indeed, this ‘something’ was expertly exploited in Miranda Richardson’s performance as the lispy Elispabeth in Blackadder, who stamped her tiny feet and spent her days with fat nursey. Richardson’s performance is, for some of us, so unfailingly amusing – and frequently quoted – that it is hard to set aside when seeing others take on a comedy enactment of our current monarch’s namesake. However, Stuart McLoughlin in his Lizzy Siddall wig does a good job as the Virgin Queen, pretty in pink as he pens down thoughts on Dudley and the rest of the suitors.
McLoughlin’s opposite number, Howard Coggins is also tremendously amusing as a performer and generally very affable as a person. Both have previously acted in pantomime (and hinted that they may well again this coming winter), and in many ways this show was like a much better class of pantomime, complete with bad puns on marrying Lettice (she’s a little gem!). The lines are fast, the songs are witty and catchy and there’s some jolly audience participation thrown in too.
In July 2013 Living Spit performed The Six Wives of Henry VIII at the Tobacco Factory’s younger sister, the Brewery Theatre. And herein lies the slight problem of this sequel. For The Six Wives of Henry VIII was really funny. By which I mean, notable in a world in which most things in the theatre prompt a short snort of laughter or ‘knowing’ smile to provoke real belly laughs, one after another. Now that they are here with a show that takes up pretty much the same format as the last one, only updates it with a slightly less inherently funny monarch, perhaps the show was always destined to be a little disappointing. Which is being slightly unfair to Living Spit, because the first show had the virtue of novelty that the second literally never could do and, on the whole, I returned home feeling that I had had a very enjoyable evening. Yet…yet. Well, it’s second album syndrome, isn’t it? The stuffed albatross toy embroidered ‘slight failure’ that all sequels of any genre wear around their necks.
Due to the success of the last show, Living Spit have been upgraded from the humble Brewery theatre space to find themselves enthroned in the main Tobacco Factory theatre. Yet their lo-fi aesthetic (they got the chair ‘from a charity shop’) and interactions with the crowd actually suit the smaller space of the Brewery theatre better. Moving the show to the bigger space makes it somehow more apparent that little has changed in the format of the production between Bess and her dad, even though you would have expected that the venue alteration might have provided some interesting opportunities for doing so.
With humour being highly subjective, it is often hard to pinpoint why one thing was funnier than another. On this occasion, I do have a suggestion. Theatre criticism, dear reader, does not happen in a vacuum. Sometimes the second half is boring in part because the seat’s sticking up one’s bum or it’s over-running and the fear of missing a bus/train/taxi is lurking continually in the air. This year, in an out-of-character move, this little critic decided to give up alcohol for Lent. So far this has meant that I’ve discovered, amongst other things, that the Tobacco Factory sells lemonade which is pink (For girls! OMG!).
However, it has also changed my experience of going to the theatre for I cannot be coerced into liking something in part because of the generous servings of press-table wine. Some might think this makes me a more honest or fair critic, but is this the case with comedy? Is it really moral to review a comedy when stone cold sober (forget the pink bubbles, they don’t do much) and then declare pompously that it’s not as funny as the first? Comedies are written to be viewed by audiences intent on having a good night out, audiences who might have shared wine over dinner or have taken advantage of the fact the Brewery Theatre is literally called that because TA DA there is a brewery there and it is a good one. In short, I mistrust my own pronouncements. We go to the theatre for many reasons, on some occasions to be exposed to post-modern intellectualism or soul-piercing tragedy and on others to just have fun. Watching Living Spit falls into the latter and whilst this show might not be the best thing in their repertoire, jokes about vegetables probably are at their best when heard after a little rum or similar.