It’s a simple premise with highly imaginative treatment: Adam Brace (author of Stovepipe) and Sebastian Armesto take William Hogarth’s four 1751 prints, The Four Stages of Cruelty, depicting the unsavoury descent of their protagonist, Tom Nero, from crime and murder to the anatomist’s dissecting table.
Covering cruelty to animals (though we see nothing worse than a skinned rabbit) and the murder of a maidservant drawn into theft, Brace and Armesto’s text – they double as directors, too, of this simple8 presentation -- is both a literal reading of the explicit engravings and an elaboration.
It’s fun and flavoursome but strangely pointless. Perhaps it needed more music, following the example of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, or more narrative ballast, following that of Nick Dear in his lively 1987 Hogarth play, The Art of Success.
Still, the stage (in the smaller of the two new Arcola spaces) is permanently alive with energetic ensemble work, whether creating a carriage ride with a ukulele case for a horse’s nose, or dressing a political speech about cleaning up Leadenhall Market with some evocative snapshots of that market life in the city stews behind the four white sheets.
And those sheets carry the engravings themselves as Tom (Richard Maxted) careers towards the gallows and his appointment with the surgeon’s knife. Nothing is as grotesque in the staging as Hogarth’s own detail of disembowelling and eye gouging, which clearly implies that the victim’s not completely dead.
But Maxted leads a very lively company, and there are some witty little sub-plots that Brace and Armesto have gleaned from Hogarth’s vivid drawings, even a great masked ball that flickers into minimal life, an adulterous escapade and a spying adventure.
Emily Pennant-Rea and Stephanie Brittain join in from opposite ends of the social spectrum, Oliver Birch makes some resounding speeches, and Dudley Hinton and Christopher Doyle switch adeptly between “crowd” scenes and colourful character vignettes.
David Brett and Hannah Emanuel supply further support in the company of nine, and the music, and the costumes of Hatty Ellis-Coward are notably resourceful, broken-down and thoroughly Hogarthian.