Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019

A Midsummer Night's DreamLast year the Bridge removed all its stalls seats for a gloriously exciting promenade production of Julius Caesar. This year, they’ve only gone and done it again – for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an old perennial favourite that can withstand the tests of time and whatever bright inventive ideas an innovative director can throw at it. Over the years, Dream has learned to stand on its own two feet; I’ve never yet seen a production that I didn’t like, because there’s always so much fun to be squeezed out from squabbling lovers, ruthless fairies and a starstruck weaver. It lends itself to updating too; I was just a bit too young to have seen the famous Peter Brook production, but that concept of aerial fairies has never quite gone away.

Gwendoline ChristieIt’s always a pleasure to write about a production that gives so much joy, happiness and sheer delight. Mr Hytner’s version is a dream of a Dream. Inventive, cheeky, bang up-to-date; playing with the storyline but still respectful of the original and its characters. Before the show started, I noted that the programme gave the factual, but enigmatic statement: “around 300 lines have been reassigned”. I hadn’t read any reviews in advance, so didn’t know what to expect; and if you’re in the same position, gentle reader, and don’t want a big surprise to be spoiled, I will completely understand if you now X me out at the corner of the page and read no more. Because the surprise is a thing of beauty.

David Moorst“I jest to Oberon”, Puck normally explains, in his introductory speech, to the unnamed fairy at the beginning of Act Two. Instead, “I serve Titania”, says this Puck, with an accent straight up from the Black Country, looking like a cross between the late lamented Rik from The Young Ones and Keith from The Prodigy. By serving Titania rather than Oberon, that means she’s going to play a trick on him, rather than the other way round. So it’s Oberon’s eyes who receive the Love-in-Idleness treatment, and who therefore becomes besotted with Bottom when he awakes. And how does that make Bottom feel? You’ll just have to see this production for yourself to find out.

Tessa Bonham Jones, Isis Hainsworth, Kit Young and Paul AdeyefaBunny Christie comes up trumps as usual with a superb set, full of trickery and surprises; a Perspex box for Hippolyta’s first appearance (she has been captured by Theseus at war, after all); an Athenian forest liberally sprinkled with brass bedsteads for the lovers’ sleep-out adventures; and a range of fabric trapezes for Puck and the fairies’ general use (see Para 1, Peter Brook reference.) Hermia and Helena appear in monastic grey, in contrast with their suitors’ sharp suits; but no one’s as splendidly clad as Theseus/Oberon, which strangely adds to his slight fragility and insecurity. Grant Olding’s original music is both haunting and happy; and if ever there was an award for the Best Ever Use of Johnny Nash in a West End Play – this is your winner.

Gwendoline Christie as TitaniaThere’s the always thorny decision to be taken when it’s a promenade production; do you stand or do you sit? At two hours forty minutes, plus the interval, depending on your level of fitness, it can take it out on both the feet and the back. And there will always be moments when you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you just won’t see what everyone else sees. I know that Hippolyta did a great visual reaction in the first scene from the guffaws from the audience; but another of the characters was right in my way so I’ve no idea what she actually did. But for every naff moment like that, there’s the chance of a golden moment; we were right there when Helena was spoiling for a fight against Hermia, and when Oberon was going to get it on with Bottom; and Snug and I exchanged thumbs ups when Pyramus and Thisbe was chosen as the entertainment for the Duke’s nuptials. The best seated position is almost certainly the front row of Gallery One; but, despite all its complications, you can’t beat the thrill of being up close and personal with the cast in the pit. And the party end to the show is by far best enjoyed by the promenaders. Those in the seats looked on like they’d been left out of the invitations, whilst we were chucking enormous moon balls at each other and boogying with Puck and Demetrius.

Hammed AnimashaunWhilst there are serious aspects to the play – Egeus, after all, is preparing to have his daughter killed if she does not bend to his will as to whom she should marry, and Theseus is on his side in this matter – this production concentrates unashamedly on the humour. Not only from the role-reversals of Oberon and Titania, but also with a beautiful mesh of modern-day asides alongside the Elizabethan text. Seeking a calendar, Bottom borrows a mobile phone off a member of the audience (and you can guess how well that can go down). Theseus and Hippolyta critique the mechanicals with a modern twist; the preferment of Pyramus and Thisbe is shown in X-Factor terms; oh, yes, and there’s that Johnny Nash moment, as well as Beyoncé and Dizzee Rascal. Not like the Athens I’ve visited at all.

Felicity Montagu and Hammed AnimashaunAlthough it is very much an ensemble piece there are a number of absolute stand-out performances. Oliver Chris is a very majestic Theseus who adores the sound of his own stentorian voice; the kind of authority figure who doesn’t walk, he sweeps; yet he retains a slight air of doubt, perfectly seen when Theseus talks to Bottom in Act Five and wonders if he remembered him from some vague encounter…? Gwendoline Christie is superb as the statuesque, no-nonsense Hippolyta and a most mischievous Titania. David Moorst is a fantastically agile and attitude-filled Puck; not one of the usual cutesy fairy characters, you could easily imagine this one beating you up behind the bikesheds if you got in his way. Perhaps funniest and most endearing of all, Hammed Animashaun is unbeatable as Bottom; a big kid who’ll sulk his way into the best parts, with a fantastic, larger-than-life chuckle and a huge heart to spread the positive energy of this play.

Kit Young and Isis HainsworthIsis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones are excellent as Hermia and Helena, Miss Jones taking every opportunity to mine the humour out of the character, and Miss Hainsworth feisty and fighty; as their suitors Paul Adeyefa and Kit Young make an enjoyable double act as the brash Demetrius and Lysander. In another sex change, Felicity Montagu turns in a brilliant comic performance as Mistress Quince, and all the other rude mechanicals make for a dream team of comedy; far and away the funniest portrayal of Pyramus and Thisbe (plus its rehearsals) that I’ve ever seen. And the supplementary fairies are all beautifully played with their face sparkles and acrobatic antics; butter wouldn’t melt when they’re in the sky, then they come down to earth and are – shall we say – delightfully human in their provision of comfort to Bottom the Ass.

Chipo KureyaPurists will be aghast. But the rest of us will absolutely love it. It’s playing at the Bridge right up until the end of August. That’s three shows this year that I’ve wanted to see again before we reached the interval; Company, Man of La Mancha, and now Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, how can I fit in another visit…?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 1st September 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha PapaKnowing me, Mr Chrisparkle, knowing you, gentle reader, A-HA! Sorry, couldn’t resist that. If you don’t know what that refers to, then obviously you’re not a fan of the early Alan Partridge, in which case I am slightly wondering why you are interested in an opinion about his latest and indeed only film, “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa”. If Alan Partridge is a new comic creation to you, then you ought to know that he’s a narcissistic knob who was once a sports reporter on Radio Norwich, then promoted beyond his capabilities to host his own dire chat show, but who today is propping up the airwaves on some backwater station called North Norfolk Digital with the show “Mid Morning Matters”. If you have loved all Mr Partridge’s TV and radio appearances over the last twenty years you will know that, depending on the script, this would be either 0% or 100% hilarious.

Alan Partridge100% it is. North Norfolk Digital is being bought out by a media conglomerate with no feeling for its slightly more middle-aged audience, and is only interested in yoof breakfast shows fronted by a smarmy young git who deplores anything aged over 23. Alan is confident that the new regime will respect his broadcasting gifts and keep him on the payroll, but aging DJ colleague Pat Farrell, played by Colm Meaney, fears it’s the end for him and his night-time radio snoozathon. Realising that it’s either Pat or Alan who has to go, Alan betrays Pat to the radio board, Pat gets sacked and Alan keeps his job. However, Pat doesn’t take this lying down and holds half the radio station staff hostage in a bizarre shotgun siege, and Alan is sent in to negotiate. Enough plot summary – you’ll have to watch the film to see how it works out.

North Norfolk DigitalAs you might have guessed it’s a double spoof – not only the whole Alan Partridge/North Norfolk Digital thing (alas I have to break it to you that neither really exist) but also of the Hollywood hostage siege genre with Alan as a kind of East Anglian Bruce Willis. In many respects it’s quite a moral story – a criticism of big business barging its way into the everyday lives of ordinary people whom it is happy to destroy without any consideration for the personal fallout. However, with Alan Partridge at the helm, any moral turpitude is likely to stem from him. You’ll be delighted to know that his character is still as full of questionable taste, supreme arrogance, woeful ineptitude, pathetic cowardice, absurd prejudice, schoolboy smut and utter hypocrisy as ever he was.

Felicity MontaguIt’s stacked full of LOL moments, many of them surprisingly subtle and under-egged so that it has a great lightness of touch and you never feel that one joke is being milked beyond its capacity. Whether it’s his escaping through a window only for his trousers and pants to get caught on the latch, or his hiding (literally) in a toilet there’s lots of physical comedy as well as that created from his character flaws and interactions with everyone else. There are some great performances from the supporting cast – Felicity Montagu is terrific as his long-suffering PA Lynn, all dolled up when she has to front the media, and there’s the unexpected pleasure of seeing Anna Maxwell Martin as the no-nonsense officer in charge of the police operation, visibly stretching Alan’s distrust of women in power.

Colm MeaneyA quick mention also to the great use of music in the film; regrettably Alan’s and my tastes in music coincide quite a lot, and seeing his totally uninhibited singalong to the radio in the car with full use of steering wheel bongos reminded me just how stupid I must look sometimes. The use of John Farnham’s “You’re The Voice” was brilliant and I bopped in my cinema seat something dreadful. So if you’re a Partridge fan, you’re going to love this film. I could easily imagine it being severely embarrassing if it had been dogged with a poor script, but instead it’s very well written, beautifully put together and extremely funny.