The play begins with a series of amusing freeze-frame dioramas economically introducing the whole cast and the main groupings within it. Speedily the action moves to The shoemaker’s workshop with its volatile and anarchic journeymen, maids and the master’s wife. These diverse characters are held together by David Troughton’s remarkable Simon Eyre, an eccentric but loveable master, who alternately cajoles, begs and threatens his household in order to keep it in being by renewing the bonds of trust and affection that are at its heart. So we begin to understand what is meant by the oft repeated phrase ‘the gentle craft.’
The threats to Eyre’s extended family of artisans comes from the conscription of a shoemaker by the noble recruitment officers, one of whom deserts his military duties to pursue his lover whilst hiding in the shoemaker’s workshop.
This production avoids being a morality play exposing the hypocrisy and malice of the rich in their dealings with the poor. It is too nuanced, too funny, and too true to its historical period to make such easy judgements. The lovelorn nobleman/cobbler, Rowland Lacy, dressed in his Dutch disguise complete with clogs and cod accent amuses us and we forgive him going AWOL. Similarly Hammon, spurned by Lacy’s fiancée, puts in train a dastardly scheme to seduce the conscripted shoemaker’s wife. It comes to nothing and shamed by the exponents of the gentle craft he emerges as a figure of pathos, a disappointed lover bitterly giving his money away to preserve his damaged reputation.
Finally, I must mention Vivienne Parry for her inspired comic creation of Margery Eyre, the shoemaker’s wife, as she tries to adapt her speech, dress and deportment to her sudden elevation to the top rank of London society.
An entertaining and absorbing production.