The astounding Will Groves, as Ephestian Quomodo, who makes this show a masterpiece

Michaelmas Term

Edward's Boys

Levi Fox Hall



Is there any stopping Edward’s Boys? For sixteen years, since they launched in 2008 with John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan, they have been winning accolade after accolade – from scholars, critics, experts in the field – for the quality, imagination and inventiveness of their stagings, under the nursing direction of Perry Mills, now Deputy Head of King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare’s school, as tradition (and common sense) would have it.

Dekker, Lyly, Ford, Beaumont (of Beaumont and Fletcher), Jonson – there is scarcely a playwright of the 1590s or early Jacobean period this impish troupe has not had the cheek to mount on stage. They educate, they interpret, they enlighten, but above all they entertain. Isn’t that what plays are for? And at that time, for a period, it was the boys’ companies – St. Paul’s, or at Blackfriars, or anywhere they could get a toe in -  which not only rivalled the adult companies. As some would have it, they outshone them.

This March at Stratford (Oxford, London) with their usual aplomb they battered away at Middleton. The Boys – we shall sometimes call them that – are old hands at Thomas Middleton (1580-1627): A Mad World my Masters and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside – their third and fourth stagings (2009-10); A Trick to Catch the Old One – all masterpieces. For Middleton, like Marston or Webster, is right up there with, possibly surpassing, Marlowe and Ben Johnson. His plots are scarily ingenious, his characterisations notoriously clever and impudent, his power of language unbelievably acute, incisive, ear-bending. He is, in short, a master.

The power of language is one of those umpteen things these (King) Edward’s Boys excel at. So vast is this play’s cast – another triumph, to pick out 30-odd actors not one of whom failed to shine. I couldn’t identify actual (real) names for everyone, but they were all, from the most senior to the tiniest, gobsmackingly good.

Outrageously, disgracefully talented, and always in depth. From the wiliest manoeuvrer most to doddery old crone, to the nippiest wee subservient, racing lackey. And with the Boys they just keep on coming. How is it possible to garner, year on year, such a bunch of young geniuses? How does Mills – and they – pull it off again and again?



Tommy Duxbury (Sim) looks like a big lead for the future

And with a text – and production – that literally whizzes along (Middleton always does, says the Director, who keeps on proving it), supplemented by astoundingly brazen music, much of it high-quality jazz, from an - oh so gifted – band, this staging never looked back for a moment. A nightmare to keep up with, given all the posing and pretending the characters alight upon. 

The Boys’ gift of speaking, enunciation, it would be hard to better (Sim, the star’s young son, Tommy Duxbury, could spruce up his diction a bit, but he is a massive potential for the future, and his scarlet-waistcoated costume was as knockout as his obvious gifts – indeed as Charlie Waters’ Orion in Summer’s Last Will and Testament. And he can sing. Gee, can he sing. Already almost a match for the astonishing Callum Maughan, or the phenomenal – wait for it – Sixth form girl (shock horror: Talia Calvert?) who showed how a pro should do it.

Regarding speech, it was Greg Madden’s opening, as the impressive Narrator figure (mischievous? Devilish), which kicked off the show with arguably the best diction of the entire evening, the two main leads apart. Likewise as the Judge struggling to sort  the mess out at the end like a Shakespeare’s Duke (Romeo, Comedy of Errors). It was superlative, his delivery. Yet everyone else’s was pretty stupendous too.

Will Groves has been Edward’s Boys’ rising star since at least 2019’s staggering The Malcontent (Marston). His French Lady’s maid, handmaiden or soubrette, remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen Edward’s Boys produce (though Dan Power in the Nashe ran him close). Groves has edged his way up into this truly outstanding male role. Yet the ‘girl’ parts kept coming: before the last-minute cancellation of Jonson’s The Silent Woman (first staged by the Boys of Blackfriars in 1609, quite late in the Boys’ troupes period), Will was topcast as the eponymous woman (or ‘Epicoene’: actually a boy disguised as a woman). The rotten obligatory cancellation was both his loss, and ours. An appalling disappointment for all, given the hard work that preceded. Think of all the gestures and faces and endless invention he might have dreamed up amid his non-utterance.

And now the mature Groves took the play, and the audience, by storm. Ostensibly a rich cloth dealer – the bookcase-like back flats looked amazingly realistic, patterns by the myriad – he is in fact a typical Jacobean era double-dealer, the essence of the play (amid many diversions) being his wheeze to defraud a gormless country type of a large parcel of land, by getting him to sign a bogus (or actual) authority to transfer ‘the woods, the fields’ and so on; already sharpening his chopper (as it were) to fell the faultless forest.


Tom Howitt's Shortyard (affecting to be 'Blastfield') generates most of the trickery and disguises in this witty plot

Will, I mean his character, Ephestian Quomodo (a rather odd name in Greek, unless meant to denote ‘coveting’, but in Latin ‘by any means possible’), is finally – or nearly – caught out by his own devices, signing the opposite; though wily as ever, and blessed with good fortune, he gets away with it in the end. Probably slipped the Judge a fiver.

I thought Groves’ previous male role was a bit dreary. Though possibly not well scripted. The utter opposite now. Here is an actor who could walk onto the professional stage tomorrow. When he is animated, he produces so many different, almost dancing ways of being energised it is mind-boggling. Every part of his body, from scampering legs upwards, is called into action. A million devices in his actorial knickers. A kaleidoscope of activity. When he’s cock-a-hoop, his face and arms work overtime.  He can adapt the pacing of lines so they become almost elasticated. (Actually that’s a skill the director has long inculcated into all his players.) Will has a way – utterly arresting - of rounding off his words with a manipulation of his mouth, so that the moment extends beyond the actual line. Now that’s professional standard.

Flailing, winning, failing, boasting, shrieking, bouncing, pretending. Juddering, jolting, quivering, throbbing with life, and with scheming. He can point, or wave, or shrug, or maul the audience, or play off them, with such a range of gesture – gesticulating – that one wonders when he will run out of ideas. He never does. His yobbish shopkeeper accent – cockney delivered with positively Glaswegian aplomb - is awesome; yet it keeps swapping, unpredictably, to normal, to yet another, even posh to impress. Talk about a performance. His soliloquies were breathtaking. A man of ideas. Up to Jack Hawkins in The Malcontent – and what an actor he was. Will never lets up. His gifts seem unbeatable. Wow: hats off. How we weep for that lost Silent Woman.

One of the countless delights of Edward’s Boys is watching actors grow from minor roles into often brilliant major parts. One easily won. Tom Howitt (Shortyard, an obscene name like those in Restoration Comedy, posing as ‘Blastfield’) easily took the laurels. His range has developed astonishingly. His ability deviously to impersonate and manipulate was encouraged by Middleton’s wacky text to outshine Quomodo’s. A lot of the playfulness emanated from Howitt. Peeing included. He too can hold a stage alone. Shifting characters as quick as a tornado, he turns up as himself, then moustachioed, brown-coated Police Inspector straight out of Maigret, then a bearded pseudo magistrate, and is a hoot every time.

Jed Trimnell

Jed Trimnell (Falselight), Howitt's co-conspirator, furnishes a formidable battery of disguises

Howitt too is an example, like Groves, of the amazing capacity of these boys to learn reams of text, some of it all but unintelligible to me, but completely mastered by them. Extraordinary. The wondrous Jed Trimnell dazzled as his aide-de-camp, Falselight (‘Idem’): another who managed to bring a girl to life in such a subtle and understated (and touching, and beautiful) way previously, and now as a bloke all but unsurpassable. A giggle to offset Howitt; but donning at least as many, in fact more, disguises. What a transition; and what excellence as – a natural actor (and joker, one now discovered: the mature, eye-catching, so welcomely ingenious grown-up Trimnell.

Almost at the start, Rearage and Salewood (Theo Richter, Charlie Hutton) made a right royal raucous pair, one of them (daft Jacobean/Cavalier locks) completely crazy parading screwed-up face, zany, irrepressible movements, and almost irrepressibly fanatical. The dupe, the sucker of this mischievous tale is Master (Richard) Easy, a credulous, unsuspecting twerp – albeit landowner – from the (then) famously gullible county of Essex. It’s his doomed north-of-the-Thames estate that Quomodo has set himself to snaffle, by fair means or foul. Enrique Burchell, I feel, might have done with a little more attention from the Director. Easy, played rather straight, could (should?) have been more lumpen, more dozy, more clueless. When he extraordinarily exploded with anger near the end, it belied all that had preceded – and was impressive, almost scaring. An Essex accent – especially as Easy is not yet, but aspires to be, a gentleman (his aim whilst in the London) is surely like the capital’s East End (so is some of north Kent). Hence cockney, at least in part. It was Will Groves who contrived this extraordinary, totally original, in-yer-face, grotesque over the top cockney. But the dupe, or dope, cannot be well spoken, or he doesn’t sound loopy enough.

For diction, and for presence onstage, few others could match Thapelo Ray (Lethe). He simply took the audience by the horns, and shook it. Every time. A big personality. An amazingly deft, ingeniously-structured characterisation, and in every sense a big performance, an actor of real note. Another unbelievable star was Callum Maughan’s dotty old Scottish lady, Mother Gruel, who is in search of her missing son (this very same Andrew Lethe (‘forgetful’; there are lots of implications in more names, several of them very rude indeed). Noone could have created a lovable, tottering, barmy, lunatic creature like Callum. A bundle of belly-laughs.


Callum Maughan as the bizarre Mother Gruel

Michaelmas Term, a first year sixth former shrewdly pens in the programme, contains ‘scenes that express misogynistic, racist, homophobic and antisemitic beliefs’, before taking a very sensible line on reservations about ‘docking’ such elements from a historical period. Mind you, Mother Gruel is none of that, unless creating a crazed old hag is in any sense misogyny. Her name is quite like the real name of Lady Macbeth, Gruoch, but she’s not an old cow at all. Just a touchingly hapless old bag lady.

Maughan not only constructed the bizarrest character of the whole lot (croaking voice, stumbling gait, unceasing gruesomeness). But he also transferred effortlessly to the band, to sing (in string bass voice), and finally to an amazing display on the trumpet. This ability of characters to shift effortlessly and dazzlingly from cast to ensemble musician was one of the many phenomenal achievements of the music, among whom the versatility of Zach Hodges – drums, guitar, mini keyboard, blond, eye-shading, posy dark glasses, a real smoothie – was quite stunning.

One of the most striking aspects was the way the band, whoever was playing, consistently cut off in an instant. How could they know such a complex score, instinctively, to pull this off, every time? Hodges was the most watchable. He was like a pro. Could have been playing Glastonbury. Should have stood in for Charlie Watts. Dynamic, a rhythmic maestro, an impeccable artiste, like a demonic swordsman, he plied his trade to perfection.  

If anyone almost stole Zach’s thunder, it was Joshua Tan, the tiny (junior: Year 7? 8?) violinist Joshua Tan). Every beginning perfect, every intonation exceptional, every mood captured to perfection. All the confidence of a seasoned soloist. Gosh. Amongst the other cast who intermittently joined him, if anyone deserves credit it would be Joe McCormack, who took to his guitar – the two of them together – like a swan to water. One of the really natty moments was when McCormack was passed his guitar by Hodges, who I’d swear had just swapped it for his, and lo! This outrageously talented band struck up once more.


Joshua Tan, the astonishingly talented young solo violin

Besides being so proficient, Joe was actually the musical Director – so yet more versatile. Who thought up the spectacular collection of Jazz hits, Elvis-like booms and croons, plus Blondie (‘One way or another I’m gonna find ya’) and a wicked revisiting of the Stones’ Satisfaction (both of those Maughan: this audience went crazy each time). Plus rep spanning the 50s to the 90s? You ceased to ponder the appropriateness of these potty interludes – in fact most were brilliantly relevant. A dead ringer for the Benny Hill show (the Boys have probably never heard of him?) The audience basked in them. You’d think they’d make a five-Act play impossibly longer. But we were rapt. Never bored for a second. The cast wouldn’t let us.

And that’s the thing, or a big thing, about Edward’s Boys. They consistently keep you guessing. You never know what’s going to hit you next. A paradox? They come in droves. An unexpected witticism? I gave up counting. Discourtesy, vulgarity, coarseness, gaucherie, sauciness, shamelessness? Here comes a bucketful more. Slaps in the face? Leg-pulls? Tongue-twisters? These boys are Mills’ marvels, and they won’t let you forget it. Luckless (lucky) audience: not a hope of getting away. You’re deep in the mud, and they keep on slinging.

McCormack is a kind of professional girl – I’m sure I’ve seen him perform as at least three, and I’d swear the snug wig that sat athwart him is the same as one he’s worn  before. The only caveat was that she, Thomasine, was left standing front stage right too long: some invention was needed here, not from her (though she might have helped), but in the plan. There were other girls, of course. Thomas Griffin as their daughter, Susan, not cherubic but canny, complete with a kind of Für Elise beginner’s piano scales, managed to raise a laugh almost every time by his fey and cheeky demeanour. Joe’s Madam Quomoda has a servant, Winifred (Peter Walton), another jollifier and cheerer-up when onstage.


Joe McCormack (Thomasine, long-suffering lady of the house)

Cameron Spruce’s glorious hyperactivity could (like Groves and Howitt) merit a review of his own. Nominally the Peasant girl’s (Rufus’) dad, he seemed to burst into countless scenes like some geyser in a Carry On film. He always found something different to do, scratting around, sometimes whizzing at electric speed, faster even than Adriel Vipin’s delightful zooming tiny. Another star? Certainly range enough. Even beat Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. So I guess so.  

The most significant lass was, or could have been, Rufus Round as his offspring, the reluctant rural wench whom this wicked, pushy father (Spruce) is trying to urge into harlotry. Round, I have always thought, may have oodles of talent, or perhaps I mean potential: still needs work. He pulled off that West Country-like accent – I  guess actually Eastern Counties, I can never work out the difference - pretty skilfully. But he struggled to create a range of reactions to his undesirable fate.

The screwed-up face was just right – once, twice or thrice. But not repetitively. It was, I felt, another example of certain young performers needing a bit of additional directorial focus (easy to say, given the frightening time constraints). I remember we (as boys) used to be made to sketch out an (imaginary) biography of our characters, to enable us to find different facets, a range of ideas to play with in performance. That sort of thing might have helped him gain personality. But how the delightful Round managed to make this sexless, tight-legged yokel Wench – who could blame her? -- look ugly (bumpkinish?) was remarkable. Spot on.

How could one not raise a cheer for Adriel Vipin’s scampering servant boy? And even more, for Harry Adams as a spectacularly resourceful hair stylist, a real artist: so many fertile, ingenious little touches, ponderings, fabrications, decisions – ‘How you stand – or lie’ (of whoring) – naughty, brilliant.

Yet this roundup stands as a tribute to the whole gang (‘All must have prizes’ – Alice in Wonderland’s Dodo): this entire gaggle of (it has been said) testosterone-filled (and sometimes -displaying) youths. And to their Director. And to the adult Props devisers (dotty signs, telephones, dice-play, golf clubs, policemen outfits, a hilarious non-postbox, an insane map of Essex); and the Costumiers (so clever, and naughtily apt, although with this company ordinary jeans can still work fine). The wigs and make-up too (almost all the beards were incredibly realistic).

The exuberance never let up. That’s Edward’s Boys. Almost a headache of impertinent effrontery all round. They mangle your nerves, and buffet you to exhaustion. High class satire of a Juvenal standard. And that, of course, is what Middleton wrote it for.  

Roderic Dunnett


Edward's Boys

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