The Shoemaker’s Holiday today – and in ’38

4th February 2015

In the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon is a truly splendid Royal Shakespeare Company production of Thomas Dekker’s 1599 play The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Director Phillip Breen, a spirited cast led by David Troughton and the RSC’s costume department have done the text proud, and Dekker’s early ‘city comedy’ emerges as a fascinating text about class and sexual power and the ruins of war. It runs until early March and is well worth the trip; the ‘onstage trailer’ with audience vox pops below gives a small sense of the production’s pleasures. (I should admit that I work as a freelance producer and consultant for the RSC; our next RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcast is of Love’s Labour’s Lost next Wednesday, 11 February.)

Seeing the production renewed my interest in the early television presentation from Alexandra Palace which was broadcast on the evening of Sunday 11 December 1938. No recording exists, of course (the first plays we have are from 1953), no do there seem to be reviews of the television broadcast, but there are traces of other documentation, including a Radio Times billing with the photograph above. Describing the play as ‘a pleasant comedy of the gentle craft’, Radio Times details that the broadcast was based on Nancy’s Price’s production from the Playhouse Theatre.

Television drama in those early days often adapted stage productions, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday had been running at the Playhouse since the end of October. Announcing the forthcoming attraction on 17 October 1938, The Times noted that ‘a permanent Elizabethan set, with balcony and curtains, will be used, and music of the period will be played.’ The Times also informed its readers that Dekker’s play had received only one professional revival since Jacobean days, and that had been in 1926 at the Old Vic. A week later the paper of record was back-tracking a little, since it acknowledged that there had been only one modern professional production in London, since the play had also been given by the Birmingham Repertory Company in 1922 and was frequently revived by amateur groups.

A week or so after that, on 5 November, the anonymous critic for The Times could only be moderately enthusiastic about the play and production:

the play, as a dramatic unity, just fails to emerge from the museum into life. Partly this is the fault of the story, which tries to poise knockabout comedy between Dick Whittington comedy and Enoch Arden pathos; partly it is no-one’s fault, only the fault of time, which has plunged so much homely verbal humour into obscurity. And yet in patches, recurring again and again, the scenes become heartily and gloriously vital.

There was praise too for the cast, including Harold Warrender and Edmund Willard, but no specific mention of director Nancy Price, a figure who had a fascinating career as an actress and occasional writer.

The Observer, on 6 November, was less enthusiastic:

the production had… good intentions and, at moments, something more… this revival gave us glimpses rather than a steady view of a play that was and still is as English and idiosyncratic as the Lord Mayor’s Show.

‘A.D.’ for The Manchester Guardian, however, was good deal more positive:

It must be that Dekker and his rich and riotous play The Shoemaker’s Holiday are things too lusty for these tenuous times. The Playhouse audience was for at least two-thirds of the way as cold as any congregation… The play’s prodigal bounty of language, its exuberance of simile and imagery, its London flavour, and its oaths that are the delight of bookmen – all these things fell on icy ears… The fault is not that of Miss Nancy Price, who has produced freshly and capably… The fault is not that of the players, who all seem to appreciate both the fun and the poetry of the Elizabethan text. The blame is wholly ours if we cannot take to this gay, witty, full-blooded and often beautiful play for the pitiable reasons that it is either too robust for us or too unfamiliar.

 To which, I can only say from the perspective of 2015, hear, hear – although the hugely appreciative audience in the Swan last night seemed to have no such problems.

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