The Edward’s Boys’ performance of Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside in Somerville chapel last night was a testament to the timelessness of great comedy, the value of imaginative direction and our frequent underestimation of young actors.

Middleton’s play of cuckoldry, bawdry and impotence may not seem typical youth theatre fodder but the comedy was indeed written for a children’s company and worked surprisingly well when returned to its cross-dressing roots, newly transported to modern-day Cheapside. The contemporary setting worked extremely well, creating a sense of place and community which a city comedy needs. Rap and freestyle dance sequences were probably a step too far, but only because this, in one case, detracted from the dialogue and distracted audience attention from what is a complicated plot.

The acting was exuberant and confident – even when onstage in large numbers, each boy seemed to be acting and reacting well – but a few performances showed particular promise. Jack Fielding’s Yellowhammer and Harry Davies’ Allwit stood out amongst the lead roles but Harry Bowen (as the Country Wench) was extremely memorable and did much with a relatively minor part.

The main problem, however,  with the play was the very poor visibility in the chapel and I don’t see why a more suitable venue could not have been found for the Oxford leg of their tour – I missed a lot of the action at the front of the church, which was a little frustrating. The tone of Whorehound’s (Oliver Hayes’) repentance scene also seemed to miss the mark a little, but this particular episode is a challenge for any director as its language seems so far removed from the rest of the play.

Overall, director Perry Mills deserves credit for pulling off a production which an adult company could be proud of. The audience remained engaged and entertained, and not only at the novel elements – the actors were able to communicate Middleton’s words, to let a modern audience engage with seventeenth century wordplay. The spirit of city comedy found its place in Oxford last night and will too, I’m sure, in Stratford-upon-Avon in the final two performances.

4 stars

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside will be performed in the Levi Fox Hall, K.E.S., Stratford-upon-Avon on the 4th and 6th of March