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 – Mogadishu, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2012

Mogadishu“It’s about Africa, then?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle on the way to the theatre. “No, I think it’s about a school” came my rather uncertain reply. In fact, the only reference to the capital of Somalia in the play is when the middle-class girl says that what sets her apart from the other scumbags is the fact that she knows where Mogadishu is. As it happens, she doesn’t; and in many respects she isn’t set apart from the other scumbags either. Not that the majority of them are scumbags. As you can tell, it’s not a straightforward business.

Ryan Calais CameronVivienne Franzmann’s play is as gripping and exciting an unfolding of a story as you could possibly wish. From the very first scene you are hooked into its snowballing tale of racism, lies, bullying and justice. And you really have no idea how it’s going to end until the final three scenes tie it all up. This is her first full length play, having worked as a secondary-school teacher for twelve years. It shows. I cannot imagine how anyone other than a teacher would have the insight and authority to tell this tale in this context. I completely believed in it all the way through.

Jackie CluneAnd, although the material in this play is very dark, it manages to be very funny too. It’s tightly written – not a word is wasted. Everything drives either the story or characterisation forward at a cracking pace. Its simple but effective staging emphasises the starkness of its reality, its people trapped in their lies. Co-produced by the Lyric Hammersmith and the Manchester Royal Exchange, it’s a credit to both of them.

Nicholas BeveneyOne particularly interesting aspect of Tuesday’s performance is that the theatre was full of school students. When Mrs C and I saw them in the foyers we were desperately hoping they were seeing Stomp in the Derngate; but no, they piled into the diminutive stalls of the Royal. We just hoped they would have some adults with them to make sure they stayed shut up. We needn’t have worried. This play clearly hit home with the youngsters – they were captivated; and they learned a few interesting lessons about being in an audience. This play has some Ayckbournian laughter moments – by which I mean you witness something desperately awful, that means a personal sadness to someone in the play – but it is written so deftly amusingly that you burst into hysterical laughter. Then the laughter stops in your throat as you silence yourself with embarrassment; then people around you laugh at your reaction. That happened a couple of times during the play; the youngsters sounded appalled at what they had found funny; and it’s fascinating to observe.

Jason BarnettI’m going to refrain from telling you anything about the plot of this riveting story because I think you need to see it for yourself. Let me tell you instead about its splendid performances. There are two characters right at the heart of this play. Jason, played by Ryan Calais Cameron, is the gang leader and thought by Amanda, the teacher played by Jackie Clune, to be more sinned against than sinning. Rosie WyattYou decide if she is right. Mr Cameron is perfectly cast – a natural authority with the minions who surround him, a tough bully to get his own way, wheedlingly affectionate (some of the time) with the girls when trying to coerce them against their will, yet instantly flinching and subordinate to his father Ben, played superbly by Nicholas Beveney. There’s a great scene where Jason starts out all cocky and mouthy with the unimpressed Ben, and who suddenly shrinks visibly as his father moves to dominate over him. Mr Cameron portrays the nature of the bully to great effect, both when they have power, and when their power is removed. Really good work.

James BarriscaleJackie Clune’s Amanda is the kind of teacher you would have liked to have had at school yourself – compassionate and caring, and with a clear sense of right and wrong. It’s fascinating to see her self-confidence and confidence in others slowly becoming eroded with the gradual realisation that she is no longer in control of her work issues. Just before the interval is a superb scene where her self-belief starts to ebb away and provides a tantalising cliffhanger moment to take you through fifteen minutes of deep discussion about the first half. You desperately want justice to go her way, but as it appears increasingly unlikely you get wrapped up in her emotional angst.

Savannah Gordon-Liburd She is matched by her mouthy, troubled daughter, Becky, played by Rosie Wyatt, whom we saw as the troubled daughter Rose in Love Love Love last year – careful, don’t get type-cast. She gives another exuberant and painfully honest performance; once you brush away the hard defensive exterior of her character, her great vulnerability is exposed. And there’s a solid support from Amanda’s husband Peter, played by Jason Barnett, offering kindness and practicality, often to have it thrown back in his face.

Hammed Animashaun James Barriscale’s Headmaster Chris gives a good account of a man already overworked and having to deal with an HR issue he really could do without, trying to be fair to all sides and having to fight against his personal views. His interview battles with Ben are powerfully exciting scenes. It’s very well written and staged.

Tendayi Jembere The other playground kids are all also excellently brought to life. I really enjoyed the assured performance of Savannah Gordon-Liburd as Jason’s most favoured girl Dee; more mature than the other kids, more intelligent and most aware of the difference between right and wrong. Her scene at the end with Amanda where she tries to make some reparation was pitched perfectly and tugged really hard at any notion of forgiveness you might have left in your soul.

Farshid RokeyAnother favourite was Hammed Animashaun as Jordan, the most carefree kid on the block, who gets some of the best lines and rises to the challenge of making the most of the humour in the play. The largely youthful audience really appreciated his characterisation and delivery. Tendayi Jembere played the rather dim but loyal Chuggs with sincerity and conviction, and Farshid Rokey’s Saif was the embodiment of chavtastic which somehow made his internal conflicts as to how much he was prepared to toe Jason’s line more painful and realistic. Michael Karim’s bookish Firat and Tara Hodge’s gormlessly gobby Chloe both added terrific support.

Michael KarimAt the end, I think it’s fair to say that no one wins, but the whole story hangs together perfectly and all loose ends get tied up with great satisfaction. If you’re thinking of taking Granny, do be aware that this play has more four-letter words than a bunch of sailors delivering dictionaries. I don’t particularly care for unnecessary swear words, but they’re all totally in keeping with the characters and context.

Tara HodgeA really strong performance of a really strong play that will make you think twice. You may come out of it a different person from the one that went into it; I love it when that happens. Touring till the end of March, definitely one to catch.