In a sly and underappreciated tradition, many RSC cross dressing girls look like K.D. Lang. In that distinguished line up, Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse has a special place. For one, she is a 17th century girl who cross dresses unapologetically. None of this fleeing through the forest in disguise for her. Secondly she plays the double bass. And sings. And rises to the stage surrounded by a cloud of smoke. If you want the K.D. Lang crown, this is how to get it.
The Roaring Girl, written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker in 1611, is the dramatised story of Mary Frith, nickname Moll Cutpurse, a famous virago in London at the time, who lived as a pickpocket and a pimp, dressed in men’s clothing, had a house full of mirrors on Fleet Street and kept parrots, bred mastiffs and a dancing horse. In other words, she was like the best of the Soho crowd before there was a Soho and the best of feminists before there were any. The rest of the story is complicated: Sebastian needs Moll’s help to get together with Mary, they avoid his father’s trickery with cunningness, Moll helps Jack – another wild spirit – to slip the taming hand of the law, Mistress Gallipot – a shopkeeper’s wife with the covert skills of a modern spy – has a clandestine love affair with Laxton and so on. In other words, a lot happens in a jumble of a metropolitan city of aristocrats, merchants and petty thieves.
At the centre of it all, Lisa Dillon’s Moll is a born troublemaker come orator, with one eye looking for trouble while simultaneously talking her way out of it. It’s a high-wire act of soulful juggling, singing, talking, disguising and wearing fake stubble. Trust me, it works. Alongside Dillon, the whole cast shines: Joe Bannister’s Sebastian is a twinkly-eyed and silver-tongued posh boy I can have an affinity for (and you thought it couldn’t be done!); Lizzie Hopley’s Mrs Gallipot is torn between lust and social decorum and rarely a woman’s battle with her soul has been so funny; Ian Bonar’s Jack Dapper is the bad boy with the green eyeshadow and Keir Charles’ Laxton is as wily as he is uproarious.
I made a point of saying, this is 17th century but of course it isn’t. The production, directed by Jo Davies and designed by Naomi Dawson, is steeped in Victoriana with several winks to the 21st century. It’s 19th century with an explosive splash. sharp drawn lines and vivid colours (even if that colour is often black). It reminded me of the Victoria era in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with Moll, the fabulous ringleader with a superpower for mischief.
Not everything works: parts of the story were overlong and convoluted, and left me wondering if the plot will come crashing down (it didn’t). At those moments, the actors had to work hard for little pay off. But then, when things were working (which was most of the time), the result was incendiary and devil-may-care but with real substance: as with the final jig, a joyful and subversive explosion of life when secrets spill out and souls are saved. Amen.