The Dressing Book, The Rude Mechanicals, Abbotsbury and touring

JUST a short time before the powerful Bridgerton family burst into the London society, 30 miles away in Tunbridge Wells the social scene was already abuzz, and “fashion”, in all its many meanings, was the beating heart of life. There, coal merchant and magistrate Sir George Erstwhile daily reminded his decorative wife that she was his social inferior, and watched every penny she spent on clothes. On the first day of the Tunbridge season 1795, Lady Erstwhile appeared at the ball in a new frock … only to be confronted with another frock, total in its verisimilitude and worn by the redoubtable Lady Rump.

Putting on the back burner the fact that her husband Sir John Rump had been shot dead in a duel the day after the ball, the rhinoscerine Augusta Rump thundered into battle over the provenance of “the dress” and poor Maybelline Erstwhile was thrown into a flurry of confusion … at the same time as meeting Doctor Edward Ashby and feeling an unaccustomed flutter.

That’s the background for The Rude Mechanicals play The Dressing Book, first seen in 2012 and now out on the 2024 “summer” tour. I use the inverted commas in honour of the freezing cold but beautiful night at Abbotsbury … adieu the bubbles – I’ll be taking flasks of hearty soup to the rest of the alfresco shows this year!

As always, the Rudes perform in whiteface, commedia dell’arte style, with a heavy emphasis on original music and a well-honed attack that delightfully fuses ribald comedy, social commentary, romance, disappointment and entitled, upper-class pomposity. Its company of six prodigiously talented singing, dancing, multi-instrumentalist actors bring 22 characters to colourful and hilarious life. That means quick changes of costume, gait, voice and expression, and not one Rude ever gets it wrong. I’m sure everyone in the audience has a favourite character or two in this salutary, and oddly timeless, tale.

Written by Pete Talbot, the RM founder, with music and musical direction by his son Rowan (who also plays Sir George, the marvellous modiste Punctilious and the banker Whippet McKenzie), The Dressing Book is a punchy satire on the obsession with fashion, and it has a very. very clever twist before the lights go down on the travelling stage.

Evie James is a spirited Maybelline, Ed Thorpe the doctor with blue eyes, a modiste, the ghastly arch-snob Earl Shaftham, Sobriety Pinch and more. Max Gallagher is not only the barnstorming Lady Rump but also her husband Sir John Rump, another modiste, two very funny grooms and a sailor. Holly Cassidy, returning after last summer’s Miss Popplewell play and a former Miracle player, uses her expressive face and body to encapsulate the misery of an abandoned prostitute, an enterprising lady’s maid and the extravagant Sir Frank Wiley. Tamsin Lynes joins the company to play the fluttering Mrs Punctilious, as well as Mrs Stout the cook, the unfortunate Lady Shaftham and a companion prostitute.

It’s huge fun, as Rudes shows always are, and this time the audience has a chance to see the preparations that actors make to get ready for curtain up, with yoga, stretching and vocal exercises all performed on stage as picnics are consumed.

See The Dressing Book at 39 more venues between now (9th June) and 11th August. In the FTR core area, they are at Bradford Abbas on 27th June and Stourpaine on 28th, returning to Tarrant Monkton on 18th July, Baltonsborough (19th) and Child Okeford on Saturday 20th July. Visit the NEW website,, for more details.


Images from the Rude Mechanicals facebook site, while awaiting production photographs.



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