Note: This review dates from September 2001 and the production's original run at the National Theatre.
The stage safety curtain depicting London circa 1720, might have caused some wry glances on press night. Fleet Street running like a tunnel through the map has a proximity to the action of Mark Ravenhill's sordid drama that should have raised nostalgic smiles.
Holborn, nearly three hundred years ago, hosted one of the city's gay brothels. Ravenhill's play charts the possible dark beginnings of this venture, from a dress shop frequented by whores to a molly house stuffed with camp eccentrics. With an Elizabethan flourish, Mother Clap opens onto a setting which makes one wonder if an Oliver revival has been double-booked. Mops, buckets, mucky frills and peeking London steeples loom over Mrs Tull and her lustful husband.
However, before you can shout 'Gorblimey', the said husband is tucked up in his coffin, having snuffed it through a mixture of guilt and desire. This leaves Mrs Tull and her 'wandering' apprentice to start anew. The apprentice's innocent wanderings, however, are soon revealed to be walkabouts in search of male bonding. Which all leads to a fair bit of cross-dressing with Mrs Tull's fancy frocks, and a whole new enterprise in sight.
Part two of the action leads us into the present day, via a modern A-Z screen map with a yellow post-it stuck on. The puff as pimp, voyeur, total tosser and shagaround is portrayed as a group of gay men indulge in an orgy 2001-style. The contrast is derisory, and adds nothing to our tolerance, appreciation or enjoyment of gay lifestyle as a determined sub-culture. Laughable simulated sex is acted out with all the erotic charge of a pre-watershed TV fumble. It's a mercy when Mother Tull/Clap and her medieval babes reappear, but by now all semblance of a plot has been drowned.
Music remains central to the drama, and the creative team has conjured up some wickedly good stuff. Part narrative, bawdy ballad and queeny madrigal, it justifies Ravenhill's choice to inject proceedings with appropriate ditties. There's also a sturdy and thoughtful cast on show, with wonderful Deborah Findlay staggered somewhere between Eliza Dolittle's flattened vowels and Mrs Merton's rueful impudence.
However, as a history lesson this must go down as a wasted chance. The real outcome of Mother Clap's meddling and peddling resulted in the house being raided and one man hung for sodomy. How much more of an explosive drama this scenario might have made. A body swinging on the gibbet, pelted by a mocking crowd, was the ultimate reality of Holborn's molly house. Yet Ravenhill's music-hall celebration, admirable for its defiance, leaves you half-expecting The Two Ronnies to waltz in and add a swelling chorus.
Presented with deft precision it may be, but Mother Clap neither illuminates the past nor haunts the contemporary with satisfaction. Too soft by half on history, it lets the 1720s off with hardly a wagged finger. Its comment on the present day, whichever way you read it, has hardly moved Ravenhill's work forward and could leave him dangerously ghettoised. By all means write about homosexuality above homophobia, but presented this way it complicates the former and encourages the latter.