The Theatreguide.London Review
Clap's Molly House
[Scroll down for our review of the West End transfer.]
Mark Ravenhill's new play is an attempt to do a half-dozen things at once, with widely varying degrees of success. On one level it is a dramatised history lesson, on another it contrasts past and present to the detriment of the present, on another it explores the interconnections of sex and commerce (an old subject of Ravenhill's). Meanwhile, it takes time to look at the conflicting pulls of love and lust, and to consider the internal contradictions of the protestant ethic.
And along the way it wants to tell an entertaining story, and to have some in-joke fun with literary references and allusions. That it doesn't collapse completely under these divergent ambitions is a real accomplishment in itself.
In 18th-century London, we are told, homosexuals had private clubs where they could gather, often in drag, to dance, party and have sex. The first act of Ravenhill's play is a light-hearted comedy in which the widow of a man who rented costumes to whores discovers a lucrative new market in transvestites and winds up running a molly house.
The tale is sanitised to the level of fairy tale, with the men more interested in dancing minuets and playing house (you be mother, and we'll be sisters, and...) than anything else, so that even the few bits of decorously simulated sex are more comic than offensive.
Some extra fun is had by presenting this tale in a light parody of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, complete with singing choruses (music by Matthew Scott) linking scenes. A few more serious touches are just hinted at by pointing out that the protestant-capitalist ethic celebrated commerce and industry but condemned lust, a logical extension of which was that whores weren't sinners but their clients were.
Act Two continues the 18th-century story while juxtaposing it with scenes at a modern gay orgy in a fashionable Clerkenwell loft, in order to make the rather heavy-handed irony that the more liberated gay men of today lead comparatively cheerless lives, with none of the molly house's playfulness and with sex that is mechanical when not brutish.
In both time frames, men who feel actual love for their partners are torn by the conflicting compulsion to take advantage of the meaningless sex on offer. But neither of these more serious points is made effectively or with anything like the first act's theatrical vitality.
Deborah Findlay is a total delight as the eighteenth-century widow, retaining a core of innocence while joyously discovering her own capacity for both business and the enjoyment of life. Paul Ready is sweetly moving as her shop apprentice, whose coming out into the gay life introduces his mistress to that world, and Con O'Neill blends comedy and pathos in the role of a sex-starved farmer just looking for some human contact, of any gender, in London.
Nicholas Hytner directs with his usual vivacity and invention, but he cannot disguise the fact that all the play's life and fun are in the first half. There is a great deal of strong language, and a few moments of discretely simulated sex, but they are no reason to leave during the interval. The fact that very little of interest happens in the second act could be.
A return visit to Mark Ravenhill's play on the occasion of its transfer from the National Theatre to the West End finds all the same virtues and flaws noted in my original review, but a clearer sense of the bawdy comedy's surprisingly dark and sad message.
There is still a lot of humour to this look at two homosexual cultures three centuries apart, though some of the laughs are the nervous knee-jerk response to the open sexuality and frequent obscenities. And Deborah Findlay's central performance, as the mousy 18th-century widow who somehow finds herself matriarch of London's gay and transvestite subculture, is still a delight, as she ventures with wide-eyed innocence into this brave new world and discovers her own liberation in the process.
At the National, the play's point, to the extent that it had one, seemed the rather heavy-handed irony that scenes in a modern gay orgy showed that 300 years of social progress and gay liberation had somehow taken away the sweet innocence of the molly house, leaving nothing but impersonal and brutish sex.
But now, either through the increased sensitivity of a second viewing or, more likely, through subtle shifts in emphasis and depth in the playing, another and sadder irony has become apparent: that the molly house life wasn't all that sweet and innocent either.
It was there in the text all the time, in the compulsive promiscuity of a key character, and in the comic figure of the visiting farmer for whom men (or women) were really just minimally-acceptable substitutes for his pigs. But the high-spirited playing, and Deborah Findlay's tone-setting happiness had disguised it. What we see now is that Mother Clap's rose-lensed innocence blinded her, and thus us, to a world fully as capable of compulsive and joyless sexuality as the modern.
Thus the play has evolved from an elegy for a lost Eden to the sad acknowledgement that it never really existed, and audiences who laugh their way through much of it, and delight in Findlay's performance, may find themselves with unexpectedly sober afterthoughts.
A few secondary cast changes have not significantly affected the production, which is driven by Findlay's wide-eyed cheeriness, and by Nicholas Hytner's direction, which puts all the play's vitality and interest in the eighteenth-century half.
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Review - Mother Calp's Molly House - National 2001