Although set in Jacobean London, Eastward Ho! (written as a rejoinder to Dekker and Webster's Westward Ho!) has a strong resonance with a contemporary audience. This cast of hucksters, get-rich-quick merchants and social climbers congregating around the City of London are as instantly recognisable to us as their predecessors would have been to a Jacobean audience.

Even more recognisable are the upstart knights buying their titles. These days it's called services to politics or industry in the Honours list, but then it was seen as bribery and James I's creation of a new generation of Scottish aristocracy caused deep resentment among many of the English (which is why the authors included some derogatory passages about the Scots in the text - passages which got them imprisoned).

Given our easy familiarity with these characters and situations, it's strange that the director Lucy Pitman-Wallace feels the need to batter us around the head with the piece's comedy, as if she can't believe we'd understand it unless every joke is accompanied by some frenetic miming. It's almost like a pantomime for adults.

The first half of the show is taken at a frantic pace as the plot unfolds. Touchstone, the goldsmith, has two apprentices: Quicksilver, a drunken, idle gambler and the honest, industrious Golding. He also has two daughters, one of whom, Gertrude, desires to be "ladyfied" as the wife of a newly minted knight, Sir Petronel Flash, while the other is married to the Golding. Quicksilver and Sir Petronel team up with the usurer, Security, to con Gertrude out of her dowry so that Petronel can make his fortune in Virginia. Needless to say, it ends badly for them while the virtuous Golding is rewarded.

With some cleverly plotted scenes and a deliciously witty script, this could have been a great RSC occasion, but all the overplaying has a leaden effect. With every sexual innuendo emphasised by the appropriate gesture, it's like spending a social evening with members of a rugby club.

While the actors have obviously been encouraged to overact, particularly guilty are Billy Carter's Quicksilver, whose scattergun delivery renders every fifth word unintelligible, and Amanda Drew's overbearing social climber Gertrude.

Luckily, after the interval, calm is restored and the play moves more elegantly to its conclusion. Geoffrey Freshwater's Touchstone steals the acting honours here. Displaying a nice mixture of avarice, cynicism and morality, he conveys the sardonic humour of the play with no recourse to cliché. He's ably assisted by Clare Benedict as his nicely underplayed wife. Michael Matus' Sir Petronel and Paul Bentall' Security also provide some valuable laughs, while there's sterling work in some of the smaller parts: Avin Shah's Slitgut, Wayne Cater's barman and Joshua Richards' prison officer.

Eastward Ho! is a wonderful play and I'd love to see it again. Perhaps next time, it will be allowed to stand on its own merits.

- Maxwell Cooter


Note: The following review dates from May 2002 and the production's original Stratford run.

While not a great play, Eastward Ho! provides a thoroughly entertaining evening in the theatre. As well as presenting an opportunity to see a rare early 17th-century city comedy, it's also great fun - a delicious romp played by a good cast with great zest.

A London goldsmith, William Touchstone, has two daughters and two apprentices. One daughter is proud and ambitious, the other modest and dutiful; one apprentice is hardworking and industrious, the other dissolute and wanton. Add to this mix a greedy usurer and a parvenu knight, Sir Petronel Flash, who marries the ambitious daughter for her inheritance and then abandons her to seek his fortune in the American colonies, and you have the ingredients for a rollicking evening.

Of course, the proud are humbled and the meek exalted, but the plot and characters are a little less predictable than at first appears. This is a comedy in which both good and bad end happily. There is, perhaps, a bit too much plot in the first half of the play and you need to concentrate. But it's not difficult to follow and, after the interval, everything flows very smoothly, the audience is carried along on the infectious comic tide.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace has risen through the ranks of the RSC and it shows. This is very much in the company's house-style. It's played on the bare stage of the Swan - there's no scenery at all - in fine period costumes. Personally, I could have done without the jocular props (the P45 and the London Transport logo on the Alderman's chain of office) but they do no harm. Michael Tubbs' music is superb.

Eastward Ho! was a collaboration between three playwrights - Ben Jonson, John Marston and George Chapman - but it's difficult to see the joins. Dramatically, the most arresting part comes immediately after the interval. But it's unclear whether this is due to the authors, the director, or the splendid performance of young Avin Shah as Slitgut, the butcher's apprentice.

No actor is so outstanding as to unbalance the ensemble, none so poor as to weaken it. Among the old guard, Geoffrey Freshwater as Touchstone and Paul Bentall as Security, the cuckolded usurer, glow with assurance and carry the rest with them. Amanda Drew plays the ambitious daughter somewhat in the style of Kathy Burke, but is considerably subtler and more accomplished.

Although Eastward Ho! has a satirical edge, it's not a profound political or socio-economic critique of seventeenth-century London. It's just a good laugh, an energetic gallop and a really entertaining evening in the theatre.

- Robert Hole

Eastward Ho! opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon on 25 April 2002 (previews from 17 April) and runs there in repertory until 14 September 2002.