Musical comedies on the 17th Century stage, hosted by Lucie Skeaping

21 June 2016
Council Room, Strand Campus, King's College London
Part of 'What you Will: King's Shakespeare Festival'

Review by Margot Cadic, BA European Studies

On the evening of the 21st of June 2016, Lucie Skeaping, presenter at BBC Radio Three's Early Music Show, co-author of Singing Simpkin and Other Bawdy Jigs, and director of The City Waites, performed with a troop of fellow actors and musicians two short 17th century musical comedies at King’s College London’s Strand Campus. This semi-staged performance consisted of an introduction to the Jacobean historical context of jigs, followed by the performance of Singing Simpkin and The Humour of John Swabber, two popular jigs of the era.

Going beyond entertainment, the evening also had an informative nature, and successfully transports the audience back to the early 17th century, where the novel public to the subject learn that a jig, which is usually related to the act of a dance or music baroque, is also a short drama. These were usually accompanied with popular tunes of the time, with rhyming dialogue, themes of sexuality and adultery being prominent, but with a comical twist. The jigs had stock characters such as the ‘simpleton’, and would usually take place after a main play, for instance Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Globe.

With the accompaniment of live music played by Tamsin Lewis, director of Passamezzo, and Richard McKenzie during the performance, the group, all in period costume, bring to life the two plays. They manage to take the audience back in time to witness, as genuinely as possible, how the two jigs would have been performed.

The first small play, Singing Simpkin, was first recorded in 1595 and considered by many as the work of Will Kemp, one of the founders and star performer of Shakespeare's company the Chamberlain's Men. Adultery being central to the plot, the story revolves around a cheating wife and leads to a sequence of hilarious and comically absurd unravelling. Small details such as the husband wearing horns to present clearly his cockled character, and the high level of performance by all participants truly achieve a good reception from the audience.

After a short interlude, Lewis makes another informative presentation and introduces the second short piece which was originally performed by Robert Cox at the Red Bull in June 1653, when most of the theatres were closed by order of Parliament. The Humour of John Swabber once again has adultery but mainly focuses on the tricking and mocking of a sailor who at the commencement of the piece seeks revenge for the Barber sleeping with his wife.

In sum, an informative and entertaining evening with much laughter, that successfully introduces the public to the theme of 17th century jigs, a genre which unfortunately is still relatively unknown by the general public up to this day. Through both pieces, it is undeniable that Skeaping effectively communicates her enthusiasm and passion to the audience, and sets an enjoyable atmosphere throughout the event.