Review – All’s Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 13th September 2022

All's Well That Ends WellAll’s Well That Ends Well – it’s a phrase we all use, but are we all familiar with the play? I suggest not; which is rather perplexing, because of the three Shakespearean Problem Plays (the others being Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida) this is the play that has the greatest potential to be a crowd-pleaser. And Blanche McIntyre’s current production for the RSC demonstrates that quality in an often hilarious, always thought-provoking, occasionally confusing way.

Helena and BertramIn a nutshell – orphan Helena was taken into care by the kindly Countess of Rossillion but has fallen in love her son, Bertram. The Countess is fine with this; Bertram not so much, as he feels his status is somewhat better than marrying “a poor physician’s daughter”. Reluctantly he weds her on the instruction of the King of France, who owes Helena a favour for having saved his life (long story). But Bertram flees to the Tuscan wars on his wedding night with his pal Parolles (who’s no better than he ought to be.) Helena follows him and tricks him into bed by pretending to be Diana, a local girl with whom Bertram has become infatuated (we need to suspend disbelief on that front). Helena becomes instantly pregnant (it worked that way in those days) and, following a public humiliation at the French court, Bertram eventually agrees to stick with Helena; thus all’s well that ends well.

King of FranceMcIntyre has brought 17th century France and Florence bang up to date with a 2022 world of social media, online gaming, smartphones and selfies. This contemporary setting works well for the play’s characterisations and interactions, and of course has the prospect of opening up the play to a younger generation of theatregoers. However, I’m not sure that Helena’s magic “prescriptions” that she dispenses to transform the health of the ailing King of France quite make sense in what must also be a world of advance scientific breakthroughs – we need to suspend disbelief on that front too. But it’s a fun concept – and, if anything, could have been taken a little further. The back projections of social media interaction never stay there for long, and I don’t think there was much in the way of trolling, which would have been very relevant!

Countess and LavacheRobert Innes Hopkins has designed a fascinating structure that looms on top of or over the stage the whole time, like a huge shuttlecock. It works pretty well – reminding you of perhaps a conservatory at the Rossillion residence, or a tarpaulined tent in the war scenes. The costumes show a nice divide between the haves and have nots – the Countess wears classy trouser suits, Bertram and the King are a dapper pair of clothes horses, and Helena makes do with something pleasant and practical from Primark. The military fatigues are stock standard camouflage gear, and Parolles comes dressed in a pseudo-military, pseudo-flamboyant outfit, reflecting the character’s shallowness and duplicity. There’s a very effective scene where Parolles gets all his kit off apart from his comic book hero underpants, and especially removes a sturdy stocky torso covering, exposing himself to the elements rather like Edgar’s Mad Tom, thereby revealing that, underneath it all, this big wannabe burly hero is actually just a bit of a weakling like you or me.

Countess and LafewSome extremely good performances brighten up the show enormously – and maybe highlight the fact that one or two of the performances are perhaps slightly tentative. Rosie Sheehy commands the stage from the start as the forthright Helena, her voice full of confidence and assertiveness, perfect for the role of the young woman who knows what exactly she wants and is determined to get it at all costs. Claire Benedict’s Countess is superbly dignified, fair-minded, and naturally gracious; it’s not surprising that she would have extended her kindness to looking after Helena.

Dumain and BertramIt struck me that Shakespeare doesn’t give the actor playing Bertram many memorable juicy lines to establish his full character, but Benjamin Westerby makes a good job of portraying his young callousness and poor decision-making. Bruce Alexander is very good as the King of France, all wheezy and feeble at first, then properly regal later; he comes into his own in the final scene where he adjudicates in the Bertram/Helena/Diana love triangle, with beautifully timed vocal tics and challenging expressions.

Parolles and the guysAmong the lesser characters I really enjoyed the performance by Simon Coates as Lafew, the old courtier who’s seen it all and naturally gets the better of a jumped-up little chappie like Parolles in a series of truly hilarious vocal skirmishes. I also loved Eloise Secker as the Younger Dumain, for whom the pricking of pomposity comes as a fine art. Perhaps best of all, Jamie Wilkes’ Parolles is a wonderful comic creation; if ever the phrase all mouth and trousers was designed to fit anyone, it would be this fellow. Mr Wilkes gives us some terrific breaking the fourth wall moments, full of braggadocio for anyone who will stop still and listen until he’s captured and becomes the biggest Squealer since Animal Farm. It’s a brilliant performance, hugely entertaining; he makes you wonder why All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t get performed more.

Duke of Florence and armyThe final moment on stage (which I shan’t reveal) simply and effectively drives home the uncertain future that faces the young couple. This isn’t all sweetness-and-light, it’s a tale full of bitterness and disloyalty which the production conveys extremely well. I confess I occasionally lost track of what was going on, particularly with the war scenes, and the D-Rum concept, and the energy did sag occasionally. But I thought this was a very brave stab at bringing back a rarely performed play and giving it a new relevance for today. Lesson: beware of girls in fluorescent wigs at discos.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Have some more theatre memories – May to October 1982

Why not try some, they’re delicious!

  1. Hobson’s Choice – Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, 12th May 1982

image(1228)image(1229)image(1220)Harold Brighouse’s timeless masterpiece was given a charming and truly Haymarket-ian production, directed by Ronald Eyre and starring Penelope Keith affecting a not entirely credible Yorkshire accent in the main role of Maggie. Anthony Quayle (yes, THE Anthony Quayle) was Hobson, and with West End stalwarts such as Belinda Lang, Jonathan Coy, Trevor Peacock, John Grieve, and Bergerac’s Charlotte, Annette Badland, you’d have to be hard-hearted not to have enjoyed it – and I did, thoroughly. Lower down the pecking order of the cast you’ll find Carmen Silvera and Gorden Kaye, working together a few months before Allo Allo hit our TV screens.

  1. Season’s Greetings – Apollo Theatre, London, 25th May 1982

image(1233)image(1234)image(1239)I guess it was part of the fun of Alan Ayckbourn’s newest hit play that it was set during Christmas but presented on the West End Stage just as summer was hitting the streets. A classic Ayckbourn, with a bunch of misfits thrown together over the Festive period, featuring an ostentatiously repulsive old man who gets his kicks from TV violence and a meek and useless doctor obsessed with hosting puppet shows for the kids. A very funny and at the same time cringingly dreadful play, which had a sterling cast, led by Colditz’s Bernard Hepton and Porridge’s Peter Vaughan. Brilliant production of a brilliant play.

  1. Not Quite Jerusalem – Royal Court Theatre, London, 11th June 1982.

image(1248)The one and only time (so far) that I’ve been to the Royal Court, which is a pretty poor state of affairs in itself. Paul Kember’s searing examination of loutish Brits living on a kibbutz is full of brilliant lines and cringeworthy moments – and much better than the disappointing film version that came out a few years later. Fantastic performances from David Threlfall, Selina Cadell and Kevin McNally. This play should be much better known than it is.

  1. All’s Well that Ends Well – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre, London, 23rd June 1982

image(1245)image(1246)image(1247)Trevor Nunn’s magnificent production of this Shakespearean Problem Play, brought forward to the nineteenth century I believe, was a true delight and had a cast to die for. The Countess of Rossillion was played by Peggy Ashcroft, and it was superb to see her perform live. Philip Franks, Harriet Walter, Stephen Moore, Geoffrey Hutchings, Robert Eddison, John Franklyn-Robbins, Cheryl Campbell; an extraordinary assembly of talents. Amongst the minor roles you find great actors like Roger Allam and Julia Hills. It swept you up in its magic and shook you to the core. Amazing stuff.

  1. Henry IV, Parts One and Two – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre, London, 10th July 1982

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Part One in the afternoon, Part Two in the evening. Trevor Nunn was having an annus mirabilis with this grandiose and vivid production of both parts of Henry IV. Many of the cast of All’s Well reunited for this production, but with some great additions: Patrick Stewart as the King, Joss Ackland as Falstaff, Miriam Karlin as Mistress Quickly, Timothy Dalton as Hotspur, plus Gemma Jones, Mike Gwilym, James Fleet, Dexter Fletcher and many other great performers. Eight and a half hours of Shakespeare in a day – and I loved it.

  1. Captain Brassbound’s Conversion – Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, 26th July 1982.

image(1262)image(1263)image(1251)The Haymarket had created a mini-repertory company in the summer of 1982 – having seen Hobson’s Choice a couple of months earlier, many members of the same cast now appeared in Frank Hauser’s production of Shaw’s strange play inspired by the life of explorer Mary Kingsley, where a smuggler sea captain has to forego revenge. I have to confess that I have very little memory of this production, and I expect I was probably underwhelmed by the play, but there’s no denying the strength of the cast!

  1. Ballet Rambert at the Battersea Park Big Top, London, 31st July 1982.

image(1259)I went with my friends Mike, Lin and Ros to see an officially fabulous programme of dance from the Ballet Rambert. First up was Robert North’s Pribaoutki (A Telling), set to Stravinsky’s Songs and Three pieces for String Quartet, and with design inspired by Picasso. Next was Richard Alston’s Night Music, with music by Mozart (Notturni for Voices and Basset Horns, Divertimenti for Basset Horns). Finally, the showpiece Ghost Dances – which has long remained probably my favourite dance work of all time – choreographed by Christopher Bruce to a score of South American folk songs – performed by musicians who would go on to form the very successful group Incantation.

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The dancers were something of a dream team that included Cathrine Price, Catherine Becque, Ikky Maas, Lucy Burge, Lucy Bethune, Frances Carty, and lead man Robert North himself. A magical night indeed!

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  1. Find the Lady – Opera House, Jersey, 13th August 1982

image(1271)image(1258)For my summer holidays in 1982, I accompanied the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle for two weeks in the sun of St Brelade in Jersey – and it was a very enjoyable holiday. Whilst there, we caught a few shows, that were all considerably better than they had any right to be. Firstly, we saw Chas ‘n’ Dave with guest comic Roger Kitter (remember him? His song Chalkdust, by the Brat, had just come out and was doing well in the charts). But the first of the two plays we saw was Michael Pertwee’s comedy thriller Find the Lady, starring the redoubtable (and excellent on stage) Mollie Sugden as a self-appointed sleuth trying to find the dead body of a hotel guest that has disappeared. It also starred Crossroads’ Tony Adams, Clare Richards, and Patricia Samuels. Ms Sugden camped the whole thing up rotten and it was great fun.

  1. Big Bad Mouse – Lido de France, Jersey, 18th August 1982

image(1267)image(1268)I had always wanted to see this West End success, but I never expected to discover it at a little theatre attached to a hotel in Jersey. Philip King and Falkland Cary’s Big Bad Mouse ran for three years at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the late 60s and was notable for the fact that its two stars, Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards, ad-libbed their way through the play, constantly breaking the fourth wall, and definitely showing Mrs Brown’s Boys how to do it properly. To be fair, the subject matter of this play has dated badly, with women getting turned on by the thought that one of their colleagues, the mousey Mr Bloom (Eric Sykes), might in fact be a sexual predator. What can I say, it was a different era! A theatrical performance like no other really – it was an absolute hoot and I loved it.

  1. Rocket to the Moon – Apollo Theatre, London, 29th October 1982

image(1273)image(1274)image(1279)Clifford Odets’ 1938 play about a dentist’s marital infidelities had arrived from the Hampstead Theatre with great reviews and a great cast, including New Scotland Yard’s John Woodvine, Hair’s Annabel Leventon, David Burke, Mary Maddox and even Skippy’s Ed Devereaux. However, I found it an appallingly dull and dated play and if I remember rightly, I pretty much hated every minute!

Thanks for accompanying me on this jaunt through theatrical history. Next regular blog will be back to the holiday snaps and L is for Laos, an amazing country. Stay safe!