The Victorian period was a horrible time to be a woman unless you were Victoria herself. Controlling fathers, sexist employers, and condescending male colleagues were all that a woman could look forward to if Sylvia Freedman’s Rough Music is to be taken for accuracy.
Not to say that Freedman is far off. In this tale of working class dreams, seamstress Jessie Sanders flees her stagnant family to work in London, only to have her bags and money stolen part way. Retreating to a job at the local toy factory, she meets a pair of charming men...only one is a woman masquerading as a man to get ahead in life. As Jessie faces adversity and the chance to make her wishes of performing reality, the rest of the cast provide a troupe of supporting characters from a slimy owner to cheerfully unlicensed performers and the legal forces who punish them.
Throughout it all, Jessie is surrounded by the subjugation of Victorian sexism: her sister strives to marry well, the women at the factory write off various tasks as men’s work, and even the landlord who hires her to sing first thinks she wants to clean rather than perform. Ideals of chastity and restraint run through the script, even as cross-dressing Chad/Charlotte proclaims her love for Jessie and refuses to face her illegitimate father.
Set on a thrust, John Adams’ direction involves lots of northern accents and melodramatic overacting which serve the piece rather than detracting, grounding it in the era’s conventions. Norman Coates uses a wooden and musty design cast by Chris Ellis in a dim yellow evocative of gas lights. The period setting is enhanced by the use of musical hall classics like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Two Black Eyes”.
Rough Music doesn’t break new ground or teach the audience anything they don’t already know. It does, however, provide a vehicle for some lovely songs and some fast-paced yet old-fashioned entertainment, even if it’s strictly community-level fare.
Where: Kings Head Theatre
When: Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 16:30, Su @ 16:00 through 13 Jan.
How Much: £20 unreserved
Concessions: Usuals for £17.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10.
RZ Other Notes: Rough Music isn’t a bad show, but it feels contrived after Victor/Victoria and a stack of Takarazuka DVDs, as much of the plot revolves around the gender bending secondary. Perhaps the RZ is just sick of every play this time of year featuring cross-dressing. The fact that the actors were getting friendly with the audience beforehand and during the interval didn’t help either, given the show isn’t using a Brechtian or alienating staging, but this is nitpicking.