Company Profile

When the travelling players show up in Hamlet’s Elsinore, they complain about a rival theatre attraction that is drawing big audiences: the newly fashionable boys’ companies. With Edward’s Boys, modern audiences and scholars can understand – for the first time in 400 years – the draw of these “little eyases”.

One of the achievements of Edward’s Boys from their first production was to shatter our preconceptions of a boys’ company: after all, boys come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are muscular and manly, like the sixth-former comically clutching his wounded manhood in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (2010); sometimes they have a prepubescent epicene beauty, beautifully coiffed or wigged as in Mother Bombie (2009), indistinguishable from women (new audiences often don’t realise when female parts are played by young boys); sometimes mileage is made out of casting an obvious teenage boy as a woman, training us within minutes to see past the short hair and flat chest to realise that gender is performative.

And the performative is where Edward’s Boys excel. They have an unselfconscious delight in display. What in any other context would count as showing off is here a meta-theatrically-channelled delight in role-playing. The plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean boys’ company repertories frequently reference their own discrepancies and contrasts – the discrepancies between “pygmy” actors and lofty characters or between satiric style and epic material. Awareness of contrast and liminality is everywhere in these texts and Edward’s Boys exploit this awareness. It is perhaps this that enables them to break the fourth wall so naturally, acknowledging and playing to their audience. The result is not an engineered pantomimic false demotic but a natural extension of boundary awareness and breaches.

The success of Edward’s Boys has encouraged others to replicate the format – replications which have been disappointing (I speak without bias) in ways that demonstrate both why Edward’s Boys productions work so successfully and, by implication, how Elizabethan / Jacobean companies might have worked. It is clearly not enough simply to gather a cast of talented teenagers from a variety of schools and cities and call them a boys’ company. Edward’s Boys’ relations on stage with other characters and among the company members, and from the stage with their audiences, are an extension of their offstage relationship with their teacher, deputy headmaster and director, Perry Mills. The Elizabethan / Jacobean companies likewise grew from a pedagogical relationship with school teachers and choirmasters. Despite all the Elizabethan anecdotes about beating buttocks, a text like Ascham’s Schoolmaster displays the combination of affection and authority in a daily working relationship which transfers to an intimate and trusting theatrical relationship. This is not something one can rehearse. The unique house-style of Edward’s Boys is thus born of their circumstances: a group of schoolboys studying and playing together, knowing each other and supporting each other, on and off stage. All the world’s a school and all the men and women merely schoolboys.

Elizabethan schools specialised in rhetorical training and a hallmark of Edward’s Boys is their clarity of verse speaking. This is why Edward’s Boys can be so hard to review: “They understood every word they said and consequently so did I” is not the stuff of headlines. Even harder to capture in words is the verve, the wit, the playfulness and musicality of their productions. The mute official who guarded the suitcase containing the coveted fish head in Beaumont’s The Woman Hater (2016); the sex scene conducted entirely vocally by two visible but impassively-seated actors in A Mad World My Masters (2009); the manservant wearing Marigolds continually polishing the silver in the same production; the Aston Villa football shirts of the Brummie brothers in Galatea (2014); the final tableau of Westward Ho! (2012) in which all the characters erroneously pointed eastwards – before sheepishly correcting themselves; the white lab coat proclaiming “This is what a Malcontent looks like” in The Malcontent (2019); the pop music soundtracks (always thematically linked to the play) and the sublime choral singing. And the plastic chairs! What Mills can do with a row of chairs – inverted, combined, balanced – to form corridors, walls, beds (and occasionally an opportunity for an acrobatic balancing act from an actor) has become a trademark housestyle. It is this attention to detail, from crisp verse-speaking to ludic staging, that characterises every production.

We can now understand why the adult players in Hamlet were forced out of town.

Professor Laurie Maguire
Magdalen College, Oxford