In their heyday in the 1940s or 50s, the lure of backstage dramas came from the glimpse of reality between the carmine lips and set-and-waved hair of Hollywood glamour. But Lily Bevan’s new play looks into the wings of a world that’s as mundane as a mid-century mock Tudor housing development. Players improvise in front of tourists and muddle through behind the scenes in a lighthearted tour through actorly life at Hampton Court Palace.
Bevan’s script is perceptive on the metaphysical challenges the actors face, dealing with tourists’ naked curosity while robed in heavy layers of dusty velvet. Things that don’t fit into their world view are invisible, whether they’re i-phones, guide dogs or modern clothes full stop. The audience are courtly barons, to be greeted with bemused courtesy shot through with occasional moments of white hot rage: when a visitor tells a brilliantly prissy Anne Boleyn (Sophie Bleasdale) that she doesn’t see why her taxes fund the monarchy, she bursts out that treason is punishable by burning.
The re-enactors improvise their lines from a cobbled together collection of failsafe phrases and wilder, less successful forays into unfluent Tudorese. Their failsafe escape route is to propose “a cup of wine” and shamble back to the break-room for a rather more mundane mug of tea and a jaffa cake. The intrusion of the tawdry, ramshackle and baldly commercial modern world onto the stately Hampton Court Palace is played for laughs. But there’s also a bleakness to the constant ignorance of the tourists’ unrelenting, undermining questions. Putting on a costume are these characters fragile ways of assuming significance, and plugging themselves into centuries of noble lineage. There’s a more sinister edge, two, thanks to giftshop manager Kent (Fraser Millward) and his assumption of Cardinal Wolsely’s knack for inflicting regime change, although his dreams of a Google Glass future are so wildly ambitious that it’s hard to feel them as an immediate threat.
Although it gestures theatrically to plenty of intriguing corners of Visit England politics, the satire in Bevan’s text isn’t quite as pointed as it could be. Combined with direction gives the outer edges of the audience a lot of well-upholstered shoulder, it gives production has an ever-so-slightly creaky feel. Still, there’s enough ramshackle humour and cleverly observed character comedy to make it a satisfying trip behind closed oak doors.