RHONDA NICHOLL’s soul is hardened by school-play standard Jonson.

ben jonson cripps auditorium Magdalene magdalene dramatic society Rhonda Nicholl volpone werther's originals

Magdalene Cripps Auditorium, 10th-11th February, 7.30pm, £3-5

Directed by Lucy Butterfield and Giles Pitts


‘Sir, Kill me rather’

There is something vaguely uncomfortable about Cripps Auditorium – it feels more appropriate for a Women’s Institute bake sale than sexually subversive scandal. Still, it was the weekend, so gearing myself up for some lusty comedy I grabbed myself an Italian stallion, and trotted off to see whether the Magdalene Drama Society could sate my salacious desires.

I wanted to like it. I tried. I mean, the Magdalene drama people seem so damn nice, and they put in an effort – sweet little programmes that thanked just about everyone (you too, Ben Jonson!), lots of smiles, and courtesies, and charity. They like charity. It felt very twee and cutsey – a bit like a school play.

Like a school play.

Ok. So maybe the setting was entirely wrong for staging something black and bawdy. It’s a large and impersonal auditorium (in truth, the audience was well-stocked). There’s lots of light. It’s not very atmospheric. There isn’t much charisma (though questionable whether there was more wood in the building or the actors) ‘Ugh, I feel like I’m about to endure a lecture,’ said I, to my play partner.

The basics were there, but MDS lacked the confidence to take a stance. This made it unspectacular and dull; and dull Renaissance drama does not an interested listener make. It was just languorous and flopped about a lot – like Volpone on his couch. After about five minutes I too wanted to collapse on that couch, grab his bag of Werthers Originals, and either scream ‘I die’, or make a quick exit.

With regards to décor and costumes – it felt like the characters had gone a bit mad in the school dress-up box. That’s completely ok – when I get particularly neurotic, I too often think with tinged nostalgia of a ketchup-stained 1980s bridesmaid dress I used to prance around in. But past tense, people! Mosca’s apparel especially impacted his performance. He looked like an estate-agent in an ill-fitting office gear after a heavy night boozing. Or like a little boy going to interview in his father’s suit: pathetic and sad and, well, not very scheming.

The problem was that everything was either crudely stereotyped (the colonial English travellers) or wildly overacted (frantic shuffles across stage, ‘contemplative’ nods of heads whilst desperately trying to remember lines); so much so that it bordered on farce. In fact, I wish it had been farcical. But it wasn’t. It was just lacklustre. Or vapid. Or annoying (the old man stealing a Werther’s Original was funny. Once. Not a million times). At one point, Volpone mounts a plinth clutching a bottle of olive oil and attempts to speak in the tongue of the true Italian noble. It was bizarre. And beyond embarrassing. He sounded more like a cross between Kermit the Frog and that meercat from the price comparison company (who I believe is, erm, Russian).

I don’t know if the sporadic musical intervals of Saint-Saëns’ ‘Danse Macabre’ was intended to offer ‘avant-garde’ injections but by now, my cognitive functioning was long-past frazzled. Quite frankly, the only avant-garde thing about that performance was the contrast between Lady Politic Would-Be’s brilliant costume and the beyond-dismal matriculation style fashioned by Voltore.

If my single star seems cruel and miserly, perhaps I have learned something from Volpone after all… but it’s hardly a lesson I’d recommend.