Howard Brenton’s beautifully crafted take on the familiar, ever fascinating story of the girl who triggered the Reformation in England and who eventually lost her head on Tower Green is presented as ghost story unfolding at the court of the newly acceded James I of England and James VI of Scotland.
Zoe Hammond’s simple dark set gives us a steeply raked spacious playing space with a huge, harsh, crown-like structure at the centre. On this, the cast of thirteen, expertly directed by Ian Brown, unravel the story with great clarity, a fair bit of doubling and some fine ensemble work including attractive dancing and singing.
Imogen Hudson-Clayton’s Anne is slender and vulnerable but with elegant strength and a great deal of wit. Hudson-Clayton, whose role opens with a soliloquy (Brenton’s text quite often uses asides straight to the audience) and it takes her a few minutes to settle but she grows with the action and by the end you sense that we’re seeing a pretty strong tragic performance. James Sheldon gives a sensitive account of Henry, plotted against and much fonder of Anne for longer than is generally implied in dramatisations of Tudor history. But Henry was much older than Anne, having already been married for twenty-five years and Sheldon is too young. This is a problem with several cast members. A drama school can produce a vibrant young cast but their efforts at depicting characters of various ages can’t possibly always be successful.
Benjamin Longthorne is convincing as the angry, manipulative Wolsey though, The actor is neither old nor fat but brings sufficient physicality to the role to make us forget that and his voice work – allowing Wolsey’s uncourtly origins to show through – is good. And there’s an engaging performance from Chloe Levis as the frightened Lady Rochford who is cowed into treachery by Thomas Cromwell (Rick Yale) played here a bit woodenly and without charm.
Cavan Clarke is an actor to watch for. As King James, reviewing the Reformation, trying to unite church factions with his new translation of the bible and enjoying his famous gay liaisons, Clarke really brings energy and life to the role – often funny but also authoritative and complex. The very dense Scots accents works well too once he gets going.
It’s encouraging to see a drama school partnering with a venue as Rose Bruford has done as University in Residence for a season of three plays at Stratford Circus of which this Anne Boleyn in one. The standard is high and it’s an enjoyable two and a half hours of theatre.