Last year, Matthew Parvin’s ‘A Row of Parked Cars’ received five-star ratings and rave reviews. From what I’ve seen of it, his new play looks likely to match that success. The opening scene should be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a Friday morning lecture – a visibly hungover professor stumbles into a room of bored students. Having forgotten the notes for his lecture on Shakespeare, he decides to tell a story instead, silencing a student keen on acquiring some factual knowledge for her exams with the immortal line: “ You’re lit students, what the fuck are you going to do with facts?!”
The professor’s tale is set in the late sixteenth century, and follows the story of a bunch of young actors who abscond to the countryside to perform a bastardised Hamlet – crudely assembled from half-remembered snippets of dialogue – to a provincial aristocratic family. Some in the troupe are motivated by the prospect of fame, some by riches, and all of them by the possibility of sex in a place where “they don’t even have syphilis!” Needless to say, things don’t go entirely to plan, and the first two acts are a glorious romp, replete with all the smut, cross-wooing and cases of mistaken identity that you’d expect from a Renaissance drama.
Chester, played masterfully by Jack Hutchison, is a glorious character – sex-obsessed, naïve and faux-worldly all at once, and the audience will fall just as much in love with Chris Morgan’s charismatic portrayal of Mack, the troupe’s ringleader, as the daughter of the aristocratic house does. In fact the whole cast acts extremely well, the doubling-up of parts allowing them to display a chameleon-like range – the aforementioned Jack playing a cocky Jack-the-Lad in one scene, and channelling Stephen Fry as a pompous judge in the next. Alice Fraser plays no less than five roles and is just as convincing as a plague-ridden hag as she is as a bright but disillusioned student. Owen Donovan similarly impresses – alternating between a character who could easily pass for one of the guys from The Inbetweeners and a wonderfully hysterical and melodramatic nurse.
But this play isn’t only a bawdy farce. Although the dialogue is consistently funny, with certain parts as hilarious and ridiculous as the best of Monty Python’s work (the extended bargaining with the guards over whether or not to pull the sword out of one character is one such gem), this play has frequent moments of genuine profundity. The third act in particular is full of ponderings on the nature of mortality, on theatre and meta-drama, on the blindness of history, and on the centrality of sex to human experience and human failure – summed up pithily by the student’s line: “Sex, the greatest meta-narrative after man killed god”. Matthew Parvin isn’t afraid to alternate between dick jokes and musings on the meaning of life, and the framing device he chooses – of the play-within-a-lecture – allows him to negotiate between several different registers of drama. In short, The Players is a fantastic play, which, in its seamless navigation between comedy and tragedy, pays excellent homage to the Renaissance playwrights who gloried in pulling off the exact same trick.
The Players is on at the Oakeshott Room in Lincoln from Monday 13th-Thursday 16th