Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


The Wood, constantly restructuring, awesome but sympathetic and shielding, and in this production throughout forming a truly mesmerising main part of the action.

Pictures: Bea Baldwin

The Maid’s Metamorphosis

(The Maydes Metamorphofis)

Levi Fox Hall, King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon


Edward's Boys have been at it again. This was certainly one of their greatest successes - although their triumphs seem endless.

The Boys are the bizarrely inspired young troupe from King Edward VI, Stratford-upon-Avon ('Shakespeare's school'). They perform their marvels - rare Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas - just yards from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

And they rival it. Their results, year on year, no exaggeration, I don't exaggerate, have been scarcely short of superb.

This Spring's (virtually unknown) play featured, naturally, boy actors of real potential. Or more than that. The speaking - enunciation - of the whole cast was, as usual, immaculate: not least, given the sheer number -and intricacy - of the lines many have to deliver. They shine equally in tragedy (Ford, Marston), or comedy (Nashe, May, Beaumont.

Or as here, 'pastoral' (recalling John Lyly's Galatea, with its unfurling, leafy boy tendrils). This timber-rich production proved another winner, and most often, a hoot.

The Boys' Director (nurse, trainer), Perry Mills, conceived the idea of presenting playwrights of that era, the 16th and 17th centuries, but not by Shakespeare. Since then, for two decades, these cheeky, accomplished, youthful performers have teased audiences in Stratford, London and even in France with their perfectly-honed antics. Most importantly, they score by reenlivening - honouring - those boys-only troupes which flourished, stunned and electrified for all too brief a period.

Are Edward's Boys really superior to other schools' efforts? The answer has to be yes, by miles. The repertoire, the imagination, the planning, the direction, the teamwork, their grasp of the art of acting and delivering, the masterful way they set about every detail, their insistence that nothing but professional standards will do, all lift them notches above any rivals. Others may do splendidly, capably, admirably. But in the Levi Fox Hall, the Swan, in Oxford, London, at Shakespeare's Globe, Edward's Boys are untouchable.

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This spring's Boys' show, The Maids's Metamorphosis (The Maydes Metamorphofis: the contemporary Elizabethan spelinges are a joie), is one of perhaps many hidden masterpieces.

Which these impudent wizards brought fizzingly alive. Their acting was, as always, unfailingly brainy, discerning, sharp-witted, indefatigably cunning and resourceful. The text and story are of a recognisable genre, in a classic manner of that period, easy, diverting, and entertaining, plus bucolic in an Acis and Galatea (Handel, Theocritus, Ovid) kind of way.

The play dates from exactly 1600, its original performers the immensely popular 'Boys of Pauls' (sourced by choristers of St. Paul's Cathedral). The author is that well-known scribbler, 'Anon'. Major figures have been suggested as The Maid's only begetter. We still don't know. The stupendous Paul's Boys staged it, as well as a new Marston play, that same year.

But, devised probably for an aristocratic private celebration, it felt, in King Edward's hands, in countless respects like a genuine masterpiece: certainly for an intended social celebration. Like many plays in a devout, albeit seriously divided, religious era, it features no Jahweh or Elijah, but the Greek gods - Juno (the arresting, authoritative Tom Wood) , Iris (the obedient, feyly active Charlie Harwood), and the major role of Phoebus Apollo (quite a remarkable feat for the multi-talented Joe McCormack). Compare the benedictory Masque in Shakespeare's much later The Tempest.

To sum up, why are Edward's Boys' productions so special? A match quite possibly for Ben Jonson's lamented boy actor Salalathiel (Salomon) Pavy, who died aged 13, or (after the Restoration) Pepys's Edward Kynaston: "the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life". Such talent; such daring; such inspiration; what teamwork; what diction; what expressiveness.

For a start, the elocution. These brightest of lads deliver often complex, even remotely intelligible, vocabulary and lines as understandingly, effortlessly, faultlessly and lucidly as if they were school playground prattle. Audible; bold; intelligent; unbelievably professional. Invariably with their lead actors, not a syllable or consonant is lost. There is always music, of some kind, but hearing these teenagers speak is a kind of music. One marvels at, indeed envies, their assurance.

And revels in their revels. For The Maid's Metamorphosis - a most welcome new scholarly edition due from Manchester University Press - contains a vitally active chorus - a whole gaggle of them - which, by its ingenious mobility, and direction, proved focal. To manage such a group - sometimes 12 or 14 onstage at one time, unison or counterpointed, their constant actions meticulously mapped - is a major vote of confidence in their competence. And when they fall silent, not a whisper, not a flicker. 


Mischievous duo - Silviothe Forester (Callum Maughan) and the outrageous shepherd Gemulo (Cameron Spruce). Much of the comedy centres around them plus the wickedly impudent servant Joculo and they shine every time.

It's amazing how many boys of all ages queue up to be an Edward's Boy. They excel elsewhere - on the sports field, in music or art, in classroom subjects. Yet still they come, giving up their Sundays (with their Director) to produce quite astonishing teamplay. This divertissement is set in the woods. as in Shakespeare's Forest of Arden.

For of course, trees are available. Human ones. Each bearing a hefty branch (or staff), 'The Company', old and young, is onstage for perhaps 70 percent of the play, and as the scene shifts, so, to the letter, does the wood. O detail, how glorious thou art.

All else stems from the Boys' brilliantly teasing Poster/Programme designer David Troughton - and his team, including the year on year actively productive Emma Benton (Stage Manager) - pillaging their own or their neighbours' ever-inventive Props factory.

Why a wood? The The Maid's plot is simple but also traditionally contorted. An unacceptable love match. The girl, Eurymine (the continually astute, canny, sensitive Adriel Vipin), supposedly lower-class, expelled by her sniffy, cruel prospective (finally actual) aristocratic father-in-law. Fleeing into unknown woodland. Lusted after, for she is comely, by a rude pair of yokels (Callum Maughan, Cameron Spruce, both terrific) and alike relentlessly pursued by Olympus (McCormack's demanding Apollo).

Insistent Phoebus she, with confidence and a nobility that fits her real estate, bravely and curtly rejects: "If Phoebus, thou of love the offspring be, dishonour not thy deity so much. - with proffered force, a filly maid to touch: for doing so, although a God thou be, the earth, and men on earth, shall ring thy infamy." A perfect example of the quality and rhyming that pervade this whole beguiling play.


Soaring above the rest, Joe McCormack's Apollo is the third to tender unwanted advances to Eurymine, but has ultimately to cede to her adoring Ascanio

There is an unusual escape: Eurymine, to preserve her purity and at her own request, ("change me straight, from shape of maid to man") - giving the play its title and raison d'être - is turned ('metamorphosed') into a teenage boy.

Jilted Apollo reluctantly demurs. "Thyself a man shalt love a man, in vain, and loving, wish to be a maid again" There are consequences: strangely, she is - it seems a bit heartlessly - in no hurry to be restored. Thence, haplessly searched for by her real love Ascanio (a Virgilian name. for a movingly forlorn Thomas Griffin). Many intervening capers. Saddened grieving. Finally reunited. Tragedy enriched by comedy. Such as that lordly first audience would have relished.

The wood - dark but not sinister - comes alive from its teasing start, and is still cavorting by the end. Leads peel off to become part of it. Bits of, if not greenery, brownery, break off to become further leads. The choreography is breathtaking. It's impossible to imagine there was enough time (let alone imagination) to devise and inculcate so many blockings, interplay, entwinings, dance routines, pirouetting, all carried off with total confidence. The Boys' ability to absorb and ingest every iota of these unerringly formulated instructions is - mindblowing.

Such sharp precision applied to the ditties too. In this play - bearing in mind the context where it was to be staged - maybe an unusual number are specified in the text. These melodies, neatly switching between minor and major modes, sung in unison or tight harmony, featuring marvellous singing of ditties medieval or Renaissance (Tudor) in origin - were pure enchantment: half a dozen voices intoning the Marian imprecation 'Ave maris stella', enhanced by the particularly eloquent cello (elsewhere saxophone) of Dylan Evans, and stylish, eloquent, thrusting percussion (add guitar, in one memorable interlude) of Zach Hodges, whose arrangements of early music were neat, well-structured, well-judged and idiomatic.

Even Apollo - as God of Music - has not just awesomely substantial speeches, but a gift for self-accompanied chanting. Echo duets were a fad of the 17th century; there amusing snippets of that here. Edward's Boys have a habit of intruding musical numbers (sometimes pop-like) into all their shows. Here they seemed as apt, and regaling, as ever.


Rufus Round, a remarkable, alluring speaker evoking the wisdom of the exiled Aramanthus - revealed to be Eurymines' father

It's not just McCormack's regal utterances that spin the play out. Remarkably, following a Pyramus-like - i.e. traditionally fawning - Prologue, to which Rufus Round ("let zeal be pleader to our good intent") brought the polished excellence of any Shakespeare Sonneteer, the two opening scenes each involved extensive swathes of script for their actors.

Two murderers, most unlike Banquo's, the more dithering and finally convinced Orestes (Charlie Hutton); and the more assertive Philander (Theo Richter). If their scene was, maybe decidedly, static, Richter's enunciation shone among the best. So was his pacing: he took it at an eloquent lick, a major achievement with no cost to audibility to hurtle a longish scene forward. Even if visually, one longed for a passing rat to make them leap with terror.

An even greater bulk of the speaking falls to Vipin's, at that stage, doomed young Eurymine. He (she) too seemed rootedly static in some sequences, now and later, yet his bravery and expression of it was wondrous, and his speaking was, as they say, to die for. "That when the fatal blow is made at me / I may not start, but suffer patiently". Speaking nothing less than professional. Loosed unscathed, Vipin is left to wander the endless canopy of trees, drawn ever deeper into the glowering mysterious forest. Speech after speech, whatever his stances, his delivery was pure quality.

But early on, enter the rip-roaring, laugh-a-minute' element: Silvio (slyly witty contributions from Callum Maughan, a forester or 'ranger'); and the side-splitting shepherd Cameron Spruce ("This is a LADY"), eager to offer her "lodge and hospitality" ... hmm...) are two amiable rustic rogues, who light upon her (surely fields are not too far) and, both, hopelessly, compete for her love. Something to eat, maybe? Silvio proposes stag ('Venison'); Gemulo: 'a Hog, a Goose, a Capon, or a Hen.'

At all their flustering the artfully tickled audience roared with laughter. Moreover Silvio proffers lordly hunting, adding "The Nightingale is my continual clock"; Gemulo: "And mine the watchful, sin-remembering cock". Each time this duo showed up, their stichomythia - rapid-fire exchanges - was natty and brisk. As well as impish moves and telling (finger) gestures, Spruce's seasoned mock-west country accent alone was enough to bring the house down. And it did.

Who were they like in Shakespeare? The Dromio twins in The Comedy of Errors. Touchstone, maybe. Blackadder.

Thomas Griffin's ("Ascanio's) plaintive search for his abducted love was intensely poignant and moving, our affection and solicitation for him rapidly growing, enhanced by the quality of his speaking, and particularly so where he is faced with his Eurymine turned into a boy: awestruck disbelief, deep hurt, even suicide contemplated. Yet he has doggedly kept going. Won't be put off. Acutely suspects some magic. Cannot (despite the tendency of some) be in love with a boy, and yet...

Their exchange, at the heart of the play, is so heartrending, it's worth quoting.

 "What though thy habit differ from thy kind Thou mayest retain thy wonted loving mind."

"And so I do".

"Then why art thou so strange? Or wherefore doth thy plighted fancy (their commitment to one another) change?"

"Not strange, so far as kind (sex) will give me leave."

"Thou sayest thou lovest me."

"As a friend his friend."

"I reck not of such love, love me but so as fair Eurymine loved Ascanio."

"That love's denied unto my present kind."

Ascanio (bewildered): “Unkind I do thee finde: I see thou art as constant as the wind."

The oddness here is that the altered Eurymine, fully aware of the impact, seems so insensitive to Ascanio's plight. "You'll have to lump it or leave it" she effectively says. These are not the words of the 'friend' she alludes to. So far as the distraught boyfriend is concerned, she is simply denying their past and telling him to naff off and find some other girl. It's odd. 


A spectacular appearance by the seasoned Tom Wood's Queen of the Gods, Juno - magnificent presence, fantastic, commanding speaking

To cheer him up Ascanio's attended by another Shakespeare-like (or Roman Comedy-like) gentleman's ruffian, appropriately named Joculo (Enrique Burchell), to whom Anon allots some splendidly insolent, though often telling, lines which brought near enough cheers from the audience: "A Lady and a Boy, this hangs well together: like snow in harvest, sunshine and foul weather." "Women wear breeches, petticoats are dead"; "He could turn a tree into a tart"; "As nimble as a seamstress' needle, or a girl's finger at her buske (pubic) point"; or challenging Eurymine's change of sex: "You cannot tell - take her aside and prove!" Outrageous. But then Burchell is an Edward's Boys old hand.

Amid all this, the wood, green-leafed faces, shifts and glides; slithers, rearranges - scampering ingeniously - with staggering slickness. Every time, amid all these changes, splitting, scissoring, enwrapping, cherishing, cuddling, it knew exactly how to re-form. Even its mass exits were designed, and adroit. This sylvan ensemble's blocking, backed up throughout by extraordinary use of staves (q.e.d. branches), was spectacular, and wholly original: constantly varied, endlessly relevant, scrupulously prepared, painstakingly rehearsed. Sometimes three or four, sometimes a full eight or ten.

They audibly breathe, hum, hiss, sigh, screech. Gasp, chant, bellow ("Apollo"; "Eurymine!"); sit silently, tranquil, attentive; or freeze, not moving an inch. Collapse, as one; encircle; embrace. A clearing; a thicket; a glade. A doorway. At one point, all - in a flash - change direction en masse, spanning out into a perfect forty-five degree angle, like daunting stretches of pine-forest. How do they remember all this movement? I suppose like a ballet dancer. The actual gymnast or dancer is Iris, all clad in pinks, a sort of revealing hotpants, whose deft, elegant moving, highly professional, renders him (Harwood) a kind of Puck or Ariel. Grace, dexterity, beguiling, (s)he moved like a lightning descent of a rainbow. One small criticism: when Iris dutifully rejoins the chorus, her clothes should have changed. You don't see (many) pink trees.

The Costumes, Hair-dos, Props, Make-up and for that matter Lighting Departments were, as usual, far from merely ancillary. Costuming (Amanda Wood and Bea Baldwin; plus some dug up by the actors themselves) felt, perhaps with one salient exception, ideal for each scene: the yokels, for instance, or all three Gods. David Troughton and his team gamely deploying the simplest device to create maximum effect. Amusing that shirts were, of course, like smocks - worn outside trousers - the traditional, if by now dated, blasé statement of youth's rebellion -- two fingers - boys so love on escaping daily class. Amazing how a bare stage needs no stool or table or cupboard or even bower in a production such as this. The branches are props: as pointed out, the Boys themselves are the most skilful props of all.

On lighting, some key scenes involved an outsider who turns out, in a coup de théâtre, to be central to the plot. Help and advice are sought from two significant special characters: the yawning Somnus (Sleep - hilarious snoring noises from Archie Mathers; there's a similar reluctant waking scene set to music in Handel's opera Semele); and then from an ancient blind seer, Aramanthus (happily reenter that recognisable genius of a verse-speaker, Rufus Round).  


Thomas Griffin, deeply moving in moonlit forest as the hopeful but abandoned Ascanio, true lover of Eurymine, but heartbroken when Apollo transforms her into a man

He, recalling his former fortune "Pleasant in youth, but wretched in mine age", given that, like Prospero and Milan, "Sometime I was a Prince" (of Lesbos), a clue to the play's unexpected outcome), is engaged to uncover the truth about Eurymine (the other way round: "Great Apollo can make a woman of a man"); discover her lost location; and ultimately, to urge Phoebus to relent - which, abetted by a splendid extended late speech from McCormack, Apollo does, graciously curing the old man's blindness (albeit the source of his insight?) and terminating Ascanius' aching, fruitless search by restoring Eurymine to her true sex.

One problem being armed with a huge staff is that more often than not a 'blind' role comes to depend on it: the actor's flexibility of movement can be limited. Quite naturally. When that happens, it can tend to pastiche. The actor gets rather stuck. But Aramanthus' great moments come in a different way. The dazzling switches (Eddie Mitchell) into blinding red for his Tiresias-like oracular predictions were blastingly brilliant, especially when the light switched back on and the entire chorus achieved their new positions in less than seconds. And - a miracle - for his visions Round (if 'twas he) seemed to drop an octave - to a fully broken voice. Extraordinary. Planned? His utterances are long and detailed. Hurrah.

If Puck's around, you can't keep fairies away. Dark glasses. Cavorting to generate inner/outer counterweaving circles (typically effected by all at the curtain calls - invariably an indication of the quality of a production.) "We will pinch you black and blue" (Benjamin Britten, of course). But Apollo, grieving over the dead lad Hyacinthus ("gallant, comely, full fifteen years of age", produced something specially apt: the Muses.

In Greek Mythology there were nine; three appeared here, and newcomer Ilija Lazic, the first and youngest, rivalled the best speakers in the cast: word-perfect, intonation-perfect, consonant-perfect. In fact in its modest way, his charming, memorably clear enunciation appended one entirely unforeseen, unpredicted treat to the evening.


Two impressive verse-speakers. Adriel Vipin (Eurymine, the title role) is spared death by the intervention of Philander (Theo Richter).

Eurymine's identity problem is distantly akin to the Viola-Sebastian confusion in (same period) Twelfth Night. Each of her long-lined scenes, speeches, was a miracle of delivery, especially given the age of the indefatigable Adriel Vipin. There were just two, maybe not minor, cavils. Vipin's ubiquitous (breastless) dress looked as dreadful as Tom Wood's Juno was magnificent. The costumiers, in the latter case came up trumps. The former, well... if later she looked like a dungareed workman, that was appropriate: actually in the original, she - willingly - undertakes work to help the country lads.

Amid all this farrago McCormack's failed girl-poaching Apollo ducks responsibility, Eurymine's transformation ("Nor was't my fault, she was tranformed so, But her own fond desire, as ye well know"), seems like a convenient act of mean, fitting his presumptuous character. McCormack - one of those many who, like their predecessors, have progressed from girl parts (Maughan, Griffin, Joseph Valiaparambil, Hutton, Burchell, etc.) - rendered the golden God smug, overconfident, rampant, dictatorial, playing on his Deity, yet with one of his long speeches spoken hushed, impacting greatly; and ultimately gracious in conceding.

Of the other Olympians, Wood's Juno brought dignified presence, her sheer stature (and attire) a bonus. On earth - following his beautifully spoken early exchanges - the sympathy-inducing Ascanio's (Griffin's) desperate search became increasingly vivid when, with many a skilled sidestep or sudden burst of energy, offsetting grief and disbelief with explosive urgency, he penetrates and infiltrates the forbidding, weirdly animated treescape (which surely knows the answers, but opts to keep the secret).

The interplay between Silvio and Gemulo was not just verbal, but in the latter's case hyperactively zany: pricelessly, creatively, waggishly contrived. A titter-inducing comic performer? Nothing less. Round, the not aloof but gently persuadable Aramanthus, was previously (John Marston's The Fawn) a podgy, shrewd beyond his days, attractively managerial Cupid, in pursuit of Joe Pocknell in Dido, Queen of Carthage and Galatea: an alluring, distinctive trainee gearing up for (as here) greater roles. There were others to mention: a crooning shepherd's (i.e. Gemulo's) boy Mopso (more Virgil): "Terlitelo, Terlitelee"(Justin Karki); and the forester's (Silvio's) perky adjutant Frisco (Valiaparambil) imitating in song and as indecent in announcement: "Thou art as welcome to me, as a new poking stick to a chamber maid". Or re. Priapus (indecent protrusions play an inevitable role in the production): "A plain God, with a good peg to hang a shepherdess's bottle upon".

All, in Pastoral, ends happily. Apollo cedes to Aramanthus' - and a delighted Ascanio's - appeal, espoused by everyone. Pessimism and gloom get sidelined, the Duke (reports Philander) has relented, and an engagement and wedding are at last in view. Anon's skill is to have woven such a masterly and pleasurable plot from a traditional sequence of labouring lovers; and Mills', to have prised such extraordinary invention from an essentially gentle, though not tame, tale, and ignited it into the ranks of the sophisticated and magical.

Eliciting from his craftily cast young Thespians discipline, trust, loyalty, articulacy, consideration, communication, burnishing, polish, excellence, demands a human flamethrower. "Does not old wood burn brightest?" (Webster). Well, arguably. Yet the maturity of this cast, and of this production, everywhere blazed forth.  

All Edward's Boys productions, including The Malcontent, The Woman in the Moon, The Lady's Trial and Galatea, can be seen in full on YouTube.

Roderic Dunnett


Edward's Boys

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