Whackham and Windham the Wrangling Lawyers Back

I admit I was a bit sceptical when I read that the production of Whackham and Windham the Wrangling Lawyers was script-in-hand – especially as it was play I had never heard of. However, I went in with an open mind and soon discovered that there was nothing to worry about. I was handed a programme, the first line of which informed me “You are the first audience to see Jane Scott’s Whackham and Windham the Wrangling Lawyers for over 200 years.” No wonder I had never heard of it. We were informed by the director, Rebecca Frecknall, that the 1814 melodrama by Jane Scott had only survived as a censor’s copy manuscript lurking in the depths of the Huntingdon Library. Together with Newcastle University, Royal Central School for Speech and Drama and Northern Stage, the play was performed as part of the Queens of the North season of female stories and storytellers.

Jane Scott (1779-1839) was an influential woman of her time; a theatre manager and actress, she was also a talented writer. She only exhibited her work in her own theatre, the Sans Pareil Theatre, founded by her father, John Scott in 1809, which still exists today as the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, London. Whackham and Windham is one of Scott’s 48 plays, only 22 of which are extant today. The manuscript, written out originally for the theatre censors, was transcribed from Jacky Bratton’s edition of the play by the show’s historical advisor Gilli Bush-Bailey. A cast of six brought Scott’s words to life once more in a production long in the making, but short in the rehearsal.

Performed with just six chairs, a newspaper, a picture frame and several pieces of paper, the story follows a Romeo and Juliet-style template – without the untimely end. Two fathers, Wilfred Whackham (Michael Hodgson) and Worrit Windham (Gary Kitching), both lawyers, keep making and then breaking off their children’s engagement over petty arguments and heated tempers. The children, Henry Windham (Assad Zaman) and Maria Whackham (Alice Blundell) – originally played by Scott herself – are desperate to get married, despite their fathers’ disagreements, and plot to blackmail them after their engagement is once again called off. The main cast is supported by a waiting maid, Rebecca (Karen Traynor), and a dim-witted servant, Thomas Thresher (Michael Blair), who does his best to help the young lovers, although repeatedly fails to get their fathers to stop arguing, despite being offered five guineas to do so. Thresher does however come away with a letter, stolen from Windham’s coat, explaining that Henry is entitled to a large fortune and land left to him by his uncle – a fact hidden from Henry by his father’s selfish interests. Taking the situation into his own hands, Henry attempts to trick Maria’s father by disguising himself as a salesman, and then a painter, getting him to admit that he made a profit from trafficking gold. After Henry delivers a portrait of Whackham to the house, still disguised as the artist, Whackham goes to leave, hoping to meet up with a contact of the salesman he thought he met earlier. Henry and Maria think they are alone, but Whackham, realising he has been tricked, returns to the house and hides himself in his own portrait. Hearing Maria and Henry confirm their love and how they have tricked their fathers, he presents himself. Windham then arrives at the house, furious with his son for seeing Maria, and the two lawyers begin fighting again. Henry finally approaches each of them separately, and tells them he knows their secrets and will promise not to tell the other if they allow him and Maria to marry.

The script had been cut down to about one hour, and split into three main scenes. Although the play demanded a large amount of physical comedy, much of which was impossible for a script-in-hand performance, what the actors managed to do in just two days of rehearsal was to bring Scott’s wit and sense of humour back to a public stage. While there are certain sacrifices to the action that have to be made with a script-in-hand reading, the comedy was nonetheless present, and the lack of costumes, set and minimal props simply allowed the story and the actors’ creative instincts to shine through.

I was lucky enough to attend a short discussion after the show, where the actors, director and historical advisor all commented on the development of the production, and invited the audience to share their response. Many were intrigued by the process, from sourcing the manuscript material to getting a performance on stage. Frecknall was keen to share her directorial decisions to focus on the words rather than the actions, and do Scott’s original play the justice she could in such a short rehearsal time. Bush-Bailey also shared her knowledge on the history of censor’s manuscripts, and how the play is most likely to have been altered, particularly removing swear words, just to gain the approval of the theatre censors. Once on stage, Bush-Bailey admits, it may have been a slightly different story, but we will never know. I thoroughly enjoyed the reading and it was positively received. I hope – like the rest of the audience – that I can one day see this show performed in all its glory.

Present from the Past: Reclaiming Work by Women: Whackham and Windham the Wrangling Lawyers was directed by Rebecca Frecknall and edited by Gilli Bush-Bailey. The performance was inspired by participation with Tonic Theatre’s gender equality project with arts organisations, Advance.