I tried seven different puns for ‘ruff’ to illustrate Robin Hooper’s Foul Pages at the Hope Theatre.  But you can make up your own.

A feisty countess (Clare Bloomer) commissions Ian Hallard’s pliant Shakespeare to write a comedy to persuade King James I to release her lover Walter Raleigh from the Tower.  Meanwhile the King lusts over one of two rival actors vying to play Rosalind in what turns out to be As You Like It.  There are lots of bum sex jokes and a genuinely comic anthropomorphic dog who comments on the plot.  Oh, and the plague is raging.

So far, so son-of-Blackadder, but despite starting out as a bawdy Jacobethan romp with some great gags, boldly staged in the tightest of spaces, Foul Pages finds theatrical quicksand with a messy revenge tragedy delivered in achingly florid dialogue.

Hallard’s Will is a bit of a soft centre compared to the sparkier performances of James King’s Chop the dog, Tom Vanson’s pervy king or Lewis Chandler’s camp blond actor.  There’s a clever mash of mediaeval with punk in both Rachael Ryan’s neatly-judged costumes and the music which punctuates the scenes.

If the conflicting obsessions of the characters, and the murkiness of the plot were more brightly illuminated, this could be a sustained and hilarious evening.  But the author was previously literary manager at the Royal Court and has given it pretensions also to be a serious drama.

Like some of the male actors in Shakespeare’s troupe, though, it doesn’t quite know which way to turn.

Until 17 March.