Marlowe's story tells of King Edward II's relationship with Piers Gaveston, whom he openly loved and the detriment of the relationship and his emotional attitude to his marriage and the state of the country. Director Toby Frow sets his performance in the 1950s, a choice made because Frow is certain that had Edward taken to the throne in 1953 rather than Elizabeth II, we would have “seen that same battles between old and new worlds as in Marlowe's play” [Metro News 13.09.11]

After jazz music from performers in the foyer, getting theatre-goers in the mood, the play opens with a scene of frivolity; music, dancing, girls, young people drinking in a bar. Gaveston is the centre of this scene, drinking and laughing with friends, suddenly receiving a summons from Edward, revoking his recent exile, and telling news of a big change to their lives. We quickly move on to Edward in full Royal regalia joyously celebrating the death of his father Edward I, with Gaveston. Edward had become reluctant inherit the throne after the death of his brother Alphonso, which isn't covered in the play, but his poor attitude towards such a responsibility and the effects of that is shown constantly throughout with separation of characters across the stage, emotional monologues, arguments, dark corners for suspicious conversations, and some great casting.

The discomfort of the King's advisers at his rebellious nature is fast communicated to the audience, they're a shadowy bunch of imposing gents, in crombie coats and trilby hats, like a bunch of downtown gangsters, and make it clear they're not happy that Gaveston has returned. Despite his father having made efforts to put Edward on the right track to become a good King, he had been stubborn and acquired habits of extravagance and frivolity, and throughout Marlowe's work Edward lazes around with Gaveston watching films (maybe theatre in Marlowe's time), listening to music, and blatantly dismissing any discussion on his country and it's impending downfall with Lancaster, Warwick and his other concerned advisors.

The King's choice of activity is well suited to Frow's choice of setting, the 1950s echoing the era in which Edward took to the throne, when the country's population was growing in cultural literacy, and looking to a new structure in a period of post-war austerity. This austerity shows upon the introduction of Edward's neglected wife as well, Isabella of France, who brings an array of wonderful vintage frocks and jewellery adorning her and her aides. History says she triumphantly deposed him, and the play conveys this, but also her utter discomfort about the situation she is in, prioritising her son over her husband whom she loves, and going along with the deceptive plans of the barons and Mortimer, her future ally.

Isabella was a neglected wife, and is constantly shown as such, despairing at Edward's focus on controlling the powers of the Peers to keep his father's Royal legacy for himself and Gaveston rather than benefit of the country and it's people. The House of Plantagenet was quite confusing, with marriages and allegiances crossing many boundaries, and you quite quickly lose track of which title Edward had bequeathed to Gaveston, whether Gaveston had been exiled again, and whether the Barons and Earls were being promoted or not, but facts and fine detail aren't the focus of this play. Marlowe has kept things as simple as possible focussing on straightforward relationships, cutting out explanations of who did what when and why, and leaving it to the audience to deduce or assume.

There is a brushing over of fine details of Isabella's return to France also, but the subsequent deposition of the King with allies like Mortimer is clearly acted out, there is a turn against the King by the 'gangster' like Earls, and the second half of the play becomes very dark and horrific in comparison to the frivolous first half. It becomes obvious that the son, soon to be Edward III was used as a pawn and turned against his father to rectify the wrong-doings in the country which he becomes uncomfortable with, and with the King imprisoned, Isabella is given allowance for her to rule on behalf of her husband and son, flitting between moods of empowerment and fear. Edward III suddenly comes into his own a the end of the play by standing up to his mother and demonstrating more knowledge and willpower than the King, a surprising outburst of a performance from a young boy who'd been totally silent until the closing scenes.

The Earl of Lancaster is a stand out character, who Gaveston eventually comes head to head with, and whom led the group of Earls and allies against Gaveston, taking him to his death. The simple and thoughtful direction makes for a very emotional play and such intense situations left the audience gasping in awe. Edward's confused moods, lack of self-confidence and the drama caused for everyone at his insistence in trusting a 'court favourite' is also shown clearly with actors spotlighted to perform monologues. Hearing of political or military news like the successes of Robert The Bruce, and again the focus is on Edward's fear, confusion, and distraction tactics with Gaveston - they lounge on a sofa and indulge in more music. There's no over-use of props and scene changes are kept simple, so the play is constantly personal, conversational, showing emotion and discussion rather than focussing on nitty-gritty of historical goings on and acting out large amounts of unsuccessful battles.

The Archbishop of York previously shunned by the King voices discomfort with Isabella and her and Mortimer's plans to kill Edward, but the abduction and imprisonment plan is carried out in quite a fast, noisy and traumatic scene. A manhunt for Gaveston ensues, resulting in his brutal murder, and furthermore when the King is informed his emotional breakdown on the dimly lit stage is one of the most emotional monologues one can experience. His incompetence reinforced, and the fact that his reign and unbecoming occupations have been to the detriment of the church and the country, Edward is imprisoned for a long period of time, and subsequently killed, again in an emotional, very surreal and quite drawn out scene. There are many questions around the actual date and method of the King's death, the red hot poker option taken by Marlowe is uncorroborated, the King's murderer here being a fanciful character named Lightborn, interestingly with the same actor cast as plays Gaveston, for a twist.

Cultural, religious and social issues surrounding the Edward's relationship with Gaveston are again something that may have been faced in an era such as 1950s, and although Marlowe explores this relationship, there's not a focus on homosexuality, as this was never proven, (both men married early on in their friendship and fathered numerous children) the play's focus is on their exclusive friendship and reluctance, or the reluctance of Edward alone, to heed advice and 'do the right thing' in favour of honour, responsibility and his legacy, and country.

Gaveston's manipulation of King also seems to be left open for debate - was his manner simply to gain goods and titles for himself, live a beneficial life, become easily rich, or did he really love Edward? And vice versa - was Gaveston simply a play-thing for Edward, someone to rile his dislikeable Earls with, someone to keep his arranged marriage at arms length, or was this an unusual situation of pure adoration, blinding the King from his duty?

A combination of great writing and great direction re-connects the audience with a piece of history, leaving some great questions in their minds, which is only a good thing; the King's predicament and reasons were never proven in history, and Marlowe has chosen not to conclude them in his work either. Previous revivals of Marlowe's play explored Edward's homosexuality, and Frow's version includes this, but seemingly as a side-line to insecurity, control, misunderstanding and power-struggles.

The Marlowe/Frow Edward II is a brilliant and stylish exploration of power and corruption, showing the life of a King with a headlong and suicidal attitude, his unrbidled love for Gaveston, and his personal battle against the Baron's power.