Some more theatre and dance memories you ask? OK! March to September 2006

  1. Trainspotting – Oxford Playhouse, 10th March 2006

A brand new production of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, adapted and directed by Harry Gibson, which was on a national tour. The cast featured Ruaraidh Murray as Tommy. It received very good notices, if I remember rightly.

  1. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo – Peacock Theatre, London, 1st and 8th April 2006

The Trocks hit the Peacock theatre for a two week run, featuring two programmes; we saw both – starting with Programme 2! That consisted of Les Sylphides, a mystery Pas de Deux, Go for Barocco, The Dying Swan and Raymonda’s Wedding. The following week, Programme 1 showed Swan Lake Act 2, the Pas de Deux, Le Grand Pas de Quatre, The Dying Swan and Paquita. Favourite performers Paul Ghiselin (Ida Nevasayneva), Robert Carter (Olga Supphozova) and Raffaele Morra (Lariska Dumbchenko) were all present. Fantastic as always.

  1. Titus Andronicus – Wildcard Theatre Company at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse, 12th April 2006

The Burton Taylor Rooms are a tiny theatre at the back and upstairs at the Oxford Playhouse, that go in and out of favour as a venue; and at the time it was very much in. I can’t remember too much about this production of Titus Andronicus, except that it was full of guts and gore (but that’s like most productions of Titus Andronicus!) At the time Wildcard were the resident touring company of the Wycombe Swan – but I don’t think they are any more. A very small cast covered a multitude of roles, including Andy Wisher as Titus, and Charlotte McKinney as Lavinia.

  1. Nymph Errant – Lost Musicals at the Lilian Bayliss Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 16th April 2006

I’d heard about Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals but never got around to booking to see one – that is, until I heard they were doing Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant, which has songs I was brought up on as a kid, so it was a no-brainer that we had to see it – and it was a truly delightful experience, and one we kept going back to again and again. A large and talented cast sat in a semi-circle and performed a relatively unknown musical, and it worked a treat. Nymph Errant featured Thelma Ruby, Issy van Randwyck, Gay Soper, Stewart Permitt, Matt Zimmerman and James Vaughan. Loved it.

  1. The Taming of the Shrew – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 15th July 2006

Next, we saw Jerry Springer the Opera again, at the Milton Keynes Theatre, great fun again and disappointingly few protests! After that, having enjoyed our two trips to the OSC the previous year so much, this year we did three! First was their production of The Taming of the Shrew, notable for the fact they used the Christopher Sly framework in full – which worked very well; fairly slapstick in its approach but very good.

  1. Strangers on a Train – Milton Keynes Theatre, 2nd August 2006

Craig Warner’s stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel embarked on a UK tour, with a cast featuring Alex Ferns, Anita Harris and Colin Baker. Classy and well done, but it lacked a little oomph somewhere along the line.

  1. The Importance of Being Earnest – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 12th August 2006

Proving that they don’t just do Shakespeare, the OSC’s Importance of Being Earnest was a complete delight, with John Brenner in particular a magnificent Lady Bracknell. One of their best productions.

  1. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II – Chichester Festival Theatre, 19th August 2006

An old favourite, having recorded the TV presentation of the RSC’s landmark production over twenty years earlier, it was fantastic that Chichester brought back David Edgar’s magnificent 8 hour production of Nicholas Nickleby; we saw both halves of it on a glorious sunny day. One of the twentieth century’s most significant dramatic creations, it had lost none of its vigour, humour, savagery, and sheer drama. Daniel Weyman played Nicholas, Hannah Yelland Kate, Leigh Lawson Ralph, and David Dawson was particularly fantastic as Smike. What theatres are made for.

  1. The Overwhelming – Out of Joint and the National Theatre co-production at the Oxford Playhouse, 8th September 2006

Passing over a return visit to see the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth (but this time at the amazing venue of the hall at Hampton Court Palace), our next show was J T Rogers’ play The Overwhelming. The programme was the play text; I quote: “seizing the opportunity to research a book, Jack Exley uproots his family from Illinois to Rwanda in early 1994. Alarmingly out of depth, Jack begins a fervent search for his dear and missing friend while his wife and teenage son find trouble of their own. As Jack involves himself in the local politics, he discovers a pattern of brutality and beliefs that jeopardizes the lives of everyone around him. A gripping story of a country on the brink of genocide.” A very strong play, given a great production, and an amazing cast featuring Lucian Msamati, the wonderful Tanya Moodie and the great Jude Akuwudike.

  1. The Hollow – The Agatha Christie Theatre Company at the Milton Keynes Theatre, 20th September 2006

Passing over a visit to the BBC Proms in the Park for the Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park, with Lionel Richie topping the bill (excellent), our next play was Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, presented by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company in their first ever appearance. This was Christie’s own original play version of her notable book. It starred Kate O’Mara, Tony Britton and Emmerdale’s Frazer Hines. I enjoyed it, as I like Christie. Mrs Chrisparkle, however, hated it and made me promise never to take her to an Agatha Christie Theatre Company production ever again! So I haven’t!

I reckon this is going to be another theatre memories blog post! June to November 2005

  1. Nederlands Dans Theater 2 – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 21st June 2005

NDT2 were back for another of their unmissable tours, so as always, we didn’t miss it! The four pieces were Jiri Kylian’s Sleepless, followed by Hans van Manen’s Simple Things, then Lightfoot/Leon’s Shutters Shut, and finally Lightfoot/Leon’s Skew-Whiff. As it was a school night, I doubt if we stayed for the post show talk. But it would have been a brilliant night.

  1. The Merry Wives of Windsor – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 9th July 2005

The start of what was to become a tradition for nearly every year since, this was our first visit to Wadham College to see an open-air production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The OSC have always had a brilliant knack of creating something magic in a garden, and this production still has us laughing sixteen years later – one of the best productions of a Shakespeare comedy I’ve ever seen. At the heart of it, a brilliant performance by Dermot Canavan as Falstaff, but with only Mistress Ann played by a woman, there was a massive amount of cross-dressing fun to be had, and the thought of David Chittenden’s Dr Caius, together with his fishy (don’t ask) still makes us roar today.

  1. Naked – George Piper Dances/Ballet Boyz – Playhouse, Oxford, 9th July 2005

Having seen open air Shakespeare in the afternoon, we plumped for contemporary dance in the evening, with the George Piper Dances, now almost jettisoning that name in favour of the Ballet Boyz. Naked was a full length dance, the first to be choreographed by the Boyz themselves, and also featured their regular dancer Oxana Panchenko, with Monica Zamora, Yvette Halfhide and Thomas Linecar. My memory is that it was a very strong work – but, before you ask, no one was naked.

  1. Macbeth – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 6th August 2005

Our visit to see Merry Wives was so enjoyable that we booked to see the other show that OSC were doing alongside it, Macbeth. The same cast, putting their amazing inventive skills to very different purpose. Here, the most extraordinary performance was by Paul Dinnen as Lady Macbeth – but they were all sensational.

  1. The Importance of being Earnest – Playhouse, Oxford, 20th August 2005

Erica Whyman’s summer show for the Oxford Playhouse was her charming production of Wilde’s classic; my memory is that the lesser roles outclassed the major roles. Anna Calder-Marshall’s Miss Prism was a joy, as was Christopher Godwin’s Canon Chasuble.

  1. Mamma Mia! – Prince of Wales Theatre, London, 27th August 2005

Six years after it opened in the West End, we finally got to see Mamma Mia! – I was never sure if I was going to enjoy it or not – I like Abba, but I was dubious about how the songs would organically accompany a story without being contrived. I needn’t have worried. It was a wonderful show; extremely funny, superbly performed, and remarkable uncontrived! We had a few understudies for our performance – and Kelly Rainford knocked it out of the park as Tanya. A great night’s entertainment.

  1. Jasmin Vardimon’s Park – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 14th October 2005

I’d heard of Jasmin Vardimon but had never seen any of her work so we decided to give Park a try – and oh my word what a terrific piece of contemporary dance it was. I quote from the programme: “Park is a place of refuge. Floating like an island in the urban ocean, Park is the backyard for worn out beliefs and redundant ideologies. In this playground, Vardimon and her eight dancers create a new hybrid of metaphors and tales, a collage made from these remnants. Park becomes the place were the individual escapes the everyday in order to play.” All I can say is, I’d love to see it again.

  1. Le Parc – Paris Opera Ballet at Sadler’s Wells, London, 16th October 2005

Whenever we go to Paris we always try to catch the Opera Ballet at the Palais Garnier. So it only seemed right that we should go to see them when they came to the UK! Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc was a beautiful mixture of the classical and contemporary; the latter comes in and out to subvert the former throughout the show, which makes it a challenging but very entertaining show.

  1. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – Milton Keynes Theatre, 28th October 2005

I shouldn’t have included this revisit to see Swan Lake – which was actually the second time we’d seen it in 2005 – but I couldn’t resist it. The show had changed slightly from the original; the young prince/schoolboy role had gone, and the disco scene had renewed itself – perhaps not for the better, but we’re used to the new version now. Alan Vincent was the Swan and Simon Wakefield the Prince.

  1. Rambert Dance Company Autumn Tour – Milton Keynes Theatre, 4th November 2005

Back for another shot of Rambert – like NDT2 they were unmissable. The programme for the evening started with Michael Clark’s Swamp, then Rafael Bonachela’s Curious Conscience, followed by Mark Baldwin’s Constant Speed. Wonderful as always.

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College, Oxford 15th August 2017

Much Ado About NothingSome Shakespeare plays are a constant part of your life; others you encounter every so often and renew your affectionate acquaintance with them; and yet others you come to later in life. I have to confess, gentle reader, that for most of my adult life I lived without Much Ado About Nothing. True, I studied it as an undergraduate, but it didn’t tickle my funnybone or move me like Twelfth Night or As You Like It. For years I felt that the warring wannabe lovers trick was much better done in The Taming of the Shrew (until my friend the Countess of Cockfosters showed me the error of my ways). It wasn’t until I was 35 that I actually saw it on stage, at the Pendley Shakespeare Festival in Tring; and then last time at Chichester in Christopher Luscombe’s amazing production. Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies; still, there’s something about it that just doesn’t quite do it for me… and I know it’s my fault, not Shakespeare’s. Dear old chap.

Benedick and Beatrice having a nice timeShakespeare works so well in an open, garden setting, and there’s nowhere more atmospheric, charming and beautiful than at Wadham College. We’ve been coming to the Oxford Shakespeare Company productions every year since 2005, and at one point I didn’t think we were going to be lucky enough with the weather to manage it this year. Fortunately, a last minute sunny dry day was forecast for the last Tuesday of the run – and so we’ve kept our unbroken record!

Benedick and BeatriceDirector Nicholas Green has written some interesting and helpful notes in the programme about the production. It’s set in Messina, Italy, in 1943 at the time of the Allies invasion of Sicily, and thereafter the rest of Italy, and the toppling of Mussolini. And outwardly, the company have made a very successful job of authentically presenting that time. The military and noble costumes of Don Pedro, Don John and Claudio show great attention to detail. They even researched the amount of smoking that took place at the time, and faithfully recreate that on stage with unbleached Rizlas. However, I don’t feel that this specific time setting enhances the story at all; maybe it gives extra thrust to the cowardly fleeing of Don John – maybe – but it certainly didn’t impact on the human relationships between Benedick and Beatrice.

Leonarto and BorachioAnd that was for me the stumbling-block for the whole production – I couldn’t really get a grip on its creative vision. I couldn’t work out what it was trying to say that would make it different from any other production. Maybe I was spoiled by the Chichester production last year. I know that the difference of financial resources, for example, between the two companies makes comparisons pointless, but even so they’re still dealing with the same words, the same characters, the same story. Don’t get me wrong; this is an enjoyable production, with many good performances and plenty of funny moments. The scene where Benedick overhears Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro talking of Beatrice’s love for him is played beautifully, with just the right level of pantomime fun when Benedick gets accidentally soaked by being on the receiving end of each of the other’s glasses of wine. The little non-Shakespearian asides, notably from Benedick, Don John, Leonato and Margaret, work really well and add some extra knowing fun to the proceedings.

David ChittendenOf the serious aspects of this play (there are many), the whole scenario of Claudio believing the lies about Hero and then confronting her on their wedding day was magnificently played, and I thought Samuel Simmonds as Claudio and Robyn Sinclair as Hero were absolutely superb throughout, on what is, for both of them, their professional stage debut. Musically, I found the show a little patchy; Ms Sinclair’s performance as Balthazar of Sigh No More was truly beautiful and I thought Nicholas Lloyd Webber’s composition for it was stunning. However, the ending – King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – was for me a bit of a damp squib. There was a pause at the end before the final applause because everyone was expecting something more.

Robyn SinclairChristopher Jordan and Ivy Corbin made a very good Benedick and Beatrice; both convincing with their airs and graces but not afraid to look like a fool either. Mr Jordan has just the right amount of pomposity and Ms Corbin just the right amount of what Theresa May might call “bloody difficult woman”. It was great to see David Chittenden back with the OSC; his performance as Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor (2005) to this day cracks us up whenever we think about it (which is surprisingly often). His Leonarto is a complex character: avuncular and fun-loving on the one hand, and savagely recriminatory on the other. Mr Chittenden weaves these traits into a deep and credible portrayal of an essentially kind man driven to hell by another man’s lies.

Samuel SimmondsChristopher Laishley’s hearty Don Pedro is full of spirit and decency, equally at home when teasing his friends as when he is ruling Aragon. He also has enormous fun as a trigger-happy member of Dogberry’s watch and as the “demure” Ursula, whose interval-introducing speech probably got the loudest laugh of the night. I confess that, whilst her Margaret was cheeky and effervescent, I didn’t really like Heather Johnson’s portrayal of Dogberry. It’s a difficult character to make both credible and funny, and for me I’m afraid it failed on both counts. It was very frenetic, and relied heavily on babbling Spaghetti English (one of my pet hates) so that it was really hard to understand most of what she said. Thinking back to Nick Haverson’s performance in Chichester, I realise just what a role-defining performance that was. I think the identity of Dogberry simply got lost somewhere by trading on the production’s wartime Italian setting.

Peter RaeBut for me the standout performance was from Peter Rae as Don John. Shakespeare provides even less explanation for Don John’s desire to do evil than he does for Iago hatred of Othello. This Don John is suave and patronising but not above participating in some comic business, which brings him more into line with the other characters, and removes some of his aloofness. Just one disparaging flick of his cigarette on his first entrance and you knew he was in control. His authority and stage presence were second to none, and I hope he comes back to perform with the company again!

So all in all, a good production but probably not a great one; still, not being that much of a Much Ado fan – maybe it’s me. Look forward to next year’s production!

Review – Love’s Labour’s Lost, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 6th August 2016

Love's Labour's LostI can’t imagine how many times I’ve started a review of an Oxford Shakespeare Company production with the observation that it is a sheer pleasure and a privilege to sit in the gardens of beautiful Wadham College, armed with one’s picnic and bottle of Prosecco, sprawled out on a rug, having already bagsiesed one’s front row seats for yet another delightful OSC production. If that number of times = x, then this year we’re looking at x+1. And if that’s a rather pompous and overly scholastic way of looking at it, then that’s absolutely perfect for this much overlooked early Shakespearean comedy that makes fun of (inter alia) scholasticism and its practitioners. This year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined not only by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William, but also by our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad. Definitely fun for all the family.

Victoria BluntI’ve only seen Love’s Labour’s Lost twice before, both times at the Pendley Shakespeare Festival near Tring – and, curiously enough, the second occasion was on 6th August 1998, exactly 18 years to the day before we saw this Oxford Shakespeare Company production. Well, I thought it was interesting anyway. You know how most Shakespearean comedies have four couples (often one very senior in status, and one very lowly) and at the end they all get together and marry? Well that’s exactly what you think is going to happen in LLL, but just at the last minute a messenger brings bad news that puts an end to all the jollity and causes the females to go back to the traditional courtly requirements of their suitors; namely that they should pine away in abstinence for a year, before the ladies will consider their suits in earnest. The words of Mercury are indeed harsh after the songs of Apollo. The labour of love is lost.

Alice Coles and Guido Garcia LuechesIn a nutshell, the men have forsworn (again inter alia) the company of women for three years in the pursuit of learning and all round betterment. Therefore, there is much fun to be had by ridiculing their hapless attempts to keep their inability to stop thinking with their dicks when by chance they meet the Princess of France and her Ladies in waiting. I’m sorry if that was a little crude for you, but Shakespeare is very keen to show the juxtaposition between courtly and non-courtly behaviour. There’s a big contrast between the wannabe courtly behaviour of the nobles, and the nipple-tassle-twirling antics of the country wench Jaquenetta and her lascivious f-buddy Costard the Clown.

Georgina HellierAdded to this, somewhere between these two extremes, you find Don Adriano de Armado, the fantastical Spaniard, with pretensions to nobility but with a liability to indulge his frankly disgusting shoe fetish (ladies in the front row watch out) and a desire to, above all, get his leg over. Yes, gentle reader, this really is Shakespeare at his least politically correct. It’s a battle royale between the courtly, ephereal love and wham bam thank you ma’am. There were times when the Special Agent wanted the earth to open up and swallow her as she is of that age where the mention of anything sexual in the presence of her relatives is the epitome of embarrassment. How we tittered at her discomfort.

Thomas JuddOne of the trademarks of an Oxford Shakespeare Company production – especially the comedies – is that you know it’s going to be played for laughs. Unusually for us, this time we attended an evening production, which means the second act takes on a more mysterious vibe, with garden shadows emphasised by the artificial lighting on the stage, as the August night begins to draw in. Nevertheless, this did not impinge upon the general level of hilarity that had been emanating from the stage all evening. Nicholas Green’s production is set in the 1970s, which gives the costume department the enormous fun of finding really tasteless 70s outfits for the guys to wear – the girls were wearing largely timeless elegant/trendy clothes depending on the scene. The 70s were my teenager years, gentle reader, and for me Adrian Lillie’s costume design was a delightful nostalgic trip down Memory Lane. Primarily, I was really jealous of Berowne’s double-denim look; that was me down to a tee. I also always wanted a safari jacket like Boyet’s, although I wouldn’t have chosen a lilac one like his. Whilst the Secret Agent couldn’t contain her laughter at how appalling the styles were, I was just wondering how much weight I would have to lose to be able to fit the King of Navarre’s rather trendy brown striped flares. (Answer: quite a lot.)

Christopher LaishleyAnother trademark of the OSC is their inventive use of music, where sections of the text suddenly become part of a song rather than just the simple spoken word. This production isn’t quite Love’s Labour’s Lost – The Musical, but it’s not far from it. Many of the actors are dab hands with their instruments too, and there’s a lot of entertaining guitar work throughout the show. I was particularly impressed with the very funky finale comprising When Icicles Hang By The Wall and Other Greatest Hits. Simple staging with a few plinths and a set of stairs to nowhere admirably recreated both the King of Navarre’s palace and the parkland outside. As usual, a few liberties were taken with the text, including making Nathaniel a black-ballooned mute (saves on learning the words after all), and making Dull the Constable a WPC (women can be thick too). Costard enlists the help of a front-row theatregoer with reading the letters that both Berowne and Don Armado have entrusted him to deliver (to the wrong recipients, naturally) and when his mistake comes to light he blames the poor chap in the front row (“and that goes for you too, Peter!”)

Guido Garcia LuechesThe four noblemen bring a whiff of caviar with them as the four frozen Muscovites, all beards and Cossacks and so nearly breaking into a chorus of Kalinka. The ludicrousness of Berowne being able to hide on stage to observe his three companions individually sighing for love is highlighted by his standing on a plinth and hiding behind his guitar (not much of a hiding place, to be fair); and Jaquenetta raises the spirits and much more besides of the King when she addresses him, with her knee rubbing up and down his groin so that he loses his voice. As I said – played for laughs. And it all works tremendously well – this is just about the most accessible and understandable LLL you’ll ever see, and I’d forgotten what a really funny play it is.

Alice Coles, Kirstin Obank, Victoria BluntThen of course there is the cast of ten young actors who throw their heart and soul into it and give some terrific performances. Berowne (what is it with this calling him Biron in the programme?) is a gift of a role and Dominic Rye seizes all the opportunities to bring out the comedy and pathos of the character. He’s a lazy self-indulgent oaf, and a hypocrite; but also a rather touching wooer and prone to vulnerability when his lady looks the other way; a real Everyman character and you really identify with him. Owen Pullar, too, does a great job of bringing the King to life, emphasising at first his nobility but quickly contrasting that with his all too human frailties. His scene welcoming the Princess of France to his palace was hilarious, saying she can’t actually come inside because of the oath he has sworn, but nevertheless, here’s the palace, ta-daa!!

Owen PullarVictoria Blunt’s Princess is a very classy act, a natural leader for her ladies in waiting, outwardly expecting the respect that goes with her status, but inside behaving badly just like one of the girls; until Mercade brings news of her father’s death, at which point she instantly grows up and matures. It’s a really strong performance. She’s also hilarious as the slutty Jaquenetta, silently taking the mickey out of all the respectable people, encouraging one of the men in the front row to read her letter just as she stuffs it down her cleavage.

Dominic RyeAlice Coles – Viola in last year’s Twelfth Night – doubles up as a beautiful and almost demure Lady Maria and a spirited gutsy Moth (that’s the character, not an example of Lepidoptera). Kirsten Obank is a refined Lady Katharine and a delightfully dull Dull; and Georgina Hellier is full of allure as Lady Rosaline, with all the chutzpah and togetherness you’d need if you were going to be in charge of Berowne for the rest of your life. Guido Garcia Lueches brings great comic skill and verbal shenanigans to the role of Don Armado, part Latino Romeo, part Pinochet, spitting his sibilants in the face of all and sundry. He actually reminded me of the young Brian Rix. He also played a very studious looking Dumain, although you sensed he was never going to be a Straight A Student.

George WhiteheadThomas Judd is a hilarious Costard, delightfully gangly and stupid, giggling when he should have been paying attention, like the naughtiest boy in the school; playing Pompey with all the dignity he could muster (not much.) Christopher Laishley is a splendidly pompous and big-headed schoolteacher as Holofernes (despite assaulting me under the chin) as well as doubling up as Lord Boyet, frantically trying to keep a bunch of schoolgirls out of harm’s way; and George Whitehead is wonderfully wet-behind-the-ears as the lovelorn Longueville and the dark menacing presence of Mercade.

KingWe all absolutely loved it; for most of the evening it was Laugh Out Loud On Repeat. Great rapport with the crowd (it was totally packed last Saturday night), a lovely sense of the occasion and, I should point out, a technically perfect performance by everyone. We’ve caught this near the end of the run, you have just until 19th August to catch it – but you surely should as it’s one of the funniest Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. Huge congratulations to all!

The fantastic production photographs are by Ben Galpin

Review – Twelfth Night, Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 1st August 2015

Twelfth NightWhat a crowd descended on Oxford last Saturday night! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by not only Lady Duncansby and Sir William (her butler), and the Duchess of Dallington, but also Lady Lichfield and her daughter the ex-Duchess of Dudley who’s relinquished her title due to the fact that she has ideas above her station (apparently her station is Knightsbridge, not Smethwick Galton Bridge). Even our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad were there. Where’s Hello magazine paparazzi when you need them?

Gypsy CaravanI’m beginning to lose track of the number of Twelfth Nights we’ve seen recently. There was the English Repertory Theatre at Oxford Castle last year, where all the cast were sick and Sir Andrew Aguecheek had only been in the role for a day and so read from the book; there was Filter Theatre’s Rock concert version, 90 minutes and no interval; and there was the RSC’s more traditional production with Richard Wilson immaculately cross-garter’d and a genuinely funny Feste. Even the Oxford Shakespeare Company, whose Twelfth Night we were watching (hope you’re keeping up) had previously presented the play in 2008, in a very funny and camp production where Malvolio (James Lavender in the same role that he plays in this production) ended up wearing little more than a thong.

David AlwynFor some reason, this current production, directed by Nicholas Green, seems to be played a little less for laughs, and a little more on the brooding side. Maybe it’s the gypsy folk music that is scattered throughout the play that somehow – for me, at least – brings the energy of the show down a bit. Orsino’s requirement that the food of love keeps on playing is an invitation to the cast to let loose on a very moody concoction of instruments that never, to my relatively ignorant ears, quite seem to be properly in tune. I enjoyed the melody and structure of “the rain it raineth every day”, but I felt the other songs were a little, well, drab. It was almost as though the jollity allowance had been rationed in some kind of arts funding governmental austerity measure.

Alice ColesWe also found the play a little harder to follow than usual. Two or three of us, at least, didn’t understand the initial situation of the shipwreck and the apparent loss of Viola’s brother at sea; therefore an awful lot of the first half of the play made precious little sense to them at all. I was explaining to Secret Agent Code November in the interval that Viola was talking about the shipwreck with the sea captain in her first scene. “Oh, he was a sea captain,” she exclaimed, as I could visually imagine plot elements finally falling into place before her very eyes. For all its rough edges, last year’s Oxford Castle version did at least make the shipwreck very clear (by use of a paddling pool and lots of immersion). This OSC production is strictly dry land only.

William FindleyThere was another unfortunate element of confusion – of which I think Code November fell foul – in that the aformentioned James Lavender (playing Malvolio and assorted sea captains) and Robert Madeley (playing Feste and an officer) physically resemble each other, even to the extent of having the same coloured beard. In a production like this you expect cast members to double up roles anyway, but that made it doubly difficult to follow at first. Mrs C told me later she was able to work out which was which because one had a close-cropped beard, and the other was more free-flowing. But it wasn’t very helpful to have this confusion early on. It definitely resulted in some sacrifice of clarity in getting the story across.

Marie FortuneIt sounds as though I didn’t really enjoy it, doesn’t it? But I assure you I did. It’s always a delight to be sat in the gardens of Wadham College, with friends and family, post-picnic, enjoying open-air Shakespeare. It’s one of life’s little luxuries. And there were plenty of entertaining scenes and performances to relish. James Lavender’s Malvolio is a very believable study in pompous officialdom, primly checking his laptop, suffering no fools (how ironic is that), but swiftly losing his inhibitions when he believes Olivia fancies him. In this production, Malvolio’s “letter scene” is a superb piece of comedy, with Feste, Belch and Aguecheek by turns hiding and observing behind the gypsy caravan with great physical comic timing. Malvolio’s suppliers of cross-garters turned out to be from the S&M department at Ann Summers; who knew? I’m always struck just how cruel the characters are to Malvolio – yes, he’s a silly ass and probably deserves taking down a peg or two, Robert Madeleybut his humiliation is abject and complete, and then to be chucked in prison for further deprivation really is cruelty piled on cruelty. By the way, the prison scenes were staged brilliantly, with Mr Lavender’s mouth simply appearing through holes in anonymous black plastic sheeting – it reminded me of the opening sequence of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Credit to Mr Lavender, he held the commitment to Malvolio’s character all the way through, and his final protestations to Olivia and rancour against his taunters were full of dignity and quiet revenge. I’m completely on Malvolio’s side on this one. The others seem to get away with it scot-free. Mr Lavender gives an enormous boost to any open air Shakespeare. We saw him four years ago in the OSC’s Comedy of Errors and he stole every scene.

George HaynesI really liked Alice Coles as Viola; for the most part in Twelfth Night you only see her as Cesario, and a most impishly fetching young knave she made – definitely the prototype for Blackadder II’s Bob. Great acting with her eyes when she suspects she’s going to be found out; and her loving relief at having met Sebastian again was really quite touching. That was the other stand-out scene; at the end where all the true identities are revealed and the relationships that have developed just need a little re-focussing to get back to where they were before. The Secret Agent was hooting in delight at that scene. Molly Roberts was also excellent as Olivia, imperiously out of humour should anyone dare to knock at her door but subsequently girlishly excited at falling in love with Cesario. And I also really enjoyed the performance of Marie Fortune in a number of roles but primarily as Maria, where she really got to grips with the character’s earthy humour and sexually forward behaviour.

James LavenderSome of the men’s roles were played in a style very different from how they are normally portrayed. For instance, George Haynes was entertaining as a slightly less-foppish-than-usual Aguecheek, but still nicely conveying his timidity in conflict and ineffectuality in everything else. Similarly, William Findley’s Sir Toby was less gross than usual, coming across as a rather friendly drunk with a touch of Irish charm rather than the larger-than-life grotesque that you sometimes see on stage. Orsino is traditionally quite noble and courtly, whereas OSC favourite David Alwyn (third year in a row for him here) portrayed him as something of a hippy wanderer, his bare chest besmirched by the elements in a way not usually seen in Illyria. I know his appearance encouraged at least two female members of our party to try to read the tattoo only just concealed by his waistband. Feste can be played either jokily or sombrely and Robert Madeley went for the darker end of the spectrum. As a result you might equate him more like Lear’s wise fool that sees the truth than a traditional court jester. Mr Madeley’s voice was sometimes a little soft in comparison to the rest of the cast, and, as the lead singer whenever they did group numbers, it meant that his voice tended to become outshone by the instruments.

Molly RobertsSo it was a good production from the OSC but perhaps not one of their greatest. Nevertheless, everyone had a wonderful time and we’re always happy to keep coming back. Memories of their spooky Macbeth, petulantly mannered Earnest, and simply hilarious Merry Wives (2005 version) guarantee our annual return!

Review – As You Like It, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Gardens, Oxford, 12th July 2014

As You Like It 1978I’ve always liked As You Like It – but I hadn’t seen a production of it for many a long year. In fact, the only other time I’ve seen it performed by a professional cast was way, way back – the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, on 7th September 1978, when my “2nd circle” ticket (don’t suppose I was happy about sitting that far away from the stage) cost a full £2. It featured such fantastic performers as Charlotte Cornwell as Rosalind, Cherie Lunghi as Celia, Charles Dance as Oliver, and the wonderful (and sadly never seen in the UK any more) Jane Carr as Phoebe; but the stand-out performance for me was Alan David as Touchstone. He made him really sneery; patronising the country rustics around him, and probably even more morose than Jaques.

As You Like ItSo it’s amazing to think it’s taken 36 years to see it again! And it was well worth the wait. For anyone new to the Oxford Shakespeare Company – where have you been the last ten years? You’ve missed some extraordinary shows. Set in the gardens of Wadham College Oxford, with your picnic and glass of Pimm’s, watching innovative and frequently hilarious productions of Shakespeare favourites (although not exclusively – their Importance of Being Earnest was about as good as it gets), it’s a huge privilege to return every year, and we always set aside two or three Saturdays in the summer in the hope that at least one of them will be warm and sunny – as indeed it was last Saturday afternoon.

Rosalind and CeliaAs You Like It is one of those Shakespeare comedies where tragedy and division lead to happiness and unity, resolved by one of those classic “let’s all eight of us get married” endings. The route to marriage includes having a girl dressed as a boy, being wooed by a boy as though she were a girl even though he thinks he’s a boy (but she is a boy of course – confused yet?) Given that in Shakespeare’s day there’d have been no women on stage anyway, just try and count the number of in-jokes he’s setting up. To add to this, we have an actor playing Audrey – and yes, I’d have to admit she wouldn’t be my type; and an actress playing Oliver Martext and Le Beau, although this time they are actually transformed into the female characters Olivia Martext and La Belle. I did wonder with a name like that if she was going to break into a funky rendition of Lady Marmalade – but no, obviously it was considered too out of character. You’ve also got brother set against brother – twice; and a choice of sideline commentators such as the rustic Corin or the ex-courtier Jaques. Indeed, all human life is there.

Ganymede's after OrlandoThe first twenty five minutes or so are played in one part of the garden, where we all sat on rugs and watched the events unfold in the usurper Duke Frederick’s court; and once he has banished Rosalind (and Celia goes along for the ride) we up sticks and move to the seated “stage” area (having of course already bags’d one’s seats on arrival) to watch the story continue in the Forest of Arden. This two locations game works really well and gives you the audience a real sense of change of location, which is handy in a production where so many roles are doubled (or indeed trebled) up, as you can associate different roles with different stage areas. Entering the forest was accompanied by a change in costume styles too, those beautiful and handsome clothes worn at court being replaced by anything from rags to a bad day at H&M. Actually, all the costumes are brilliant throughout. Mrs Chrisparkle and I particularly relished Celia’s transformation from elegant ballroom dress, all sash and plunging neckline, to bumpkin floral shift and hippy wellies.

JaquesAs it’s an Oxford Shakespeare Company production, it’s played for laughs wherever possible, but this isn’t as LOL as some of their recent shows – it just isn’t That Sort Of Play. You can’t laugh at Jaques in the way you can at Malvolio. You haven’t got partner-swapping like you have in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There isn’t a whole heap of double-crossing going on like in Merry Wives. It’s much more character driven, and the harsh realities of life seem a little more ominous in this play. Nevertheless, Rebecca Tanwen and Charlotte Hamblin as Rosalind and Celia make a terrific comic double act, both of them entranced with their own love-at-first-sight to the hilarious disdain of the other, expressing a host of emotions with very funny facial expressions. The light heartedness when Rosalind falls for Orlando makes an excellent, grim contrast to the imminent sudden chill when David Shelley’s Duke Frederick hears about Orlando’s heritage; a superb change of atmosphere brought about by Mr Shelley’s authoritative performance.

Ganymede and PhoebeI also enjoyed how they played with the pronunciation of “Rosalind”, specifically that difficult last syllable. My Oxford tutor (yes, I used to have one of those) always used to say on this subject, and regarding this play: “I do not find it in my mind to say wind, I find it in my mind to say wind”. Personally, I never thought that was particularly helpful. Perhaps I should explain that for the first part of that sentence you use a short “i” and for the second, a long “i”. No, I agree, I still don’t think it helps. Clearly mispronunciation of find, mind, and wind, not to mention Rosalind, had them rolling in the aisles four hundred years ago.

SilviusIf I do have a criticism of the production, it would be that some of the cuts are a little unfortunate. One of my favourite speeches in the play, Touchstone’s analysis of rhetoric, with the Retort Courteous, the Quip Modest and the Reply Churlish, and how peace can reign with sensible use of “if”, is missing. “Your If is the only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, says Touchstone, identifying the theme of compromise in the play. I think that was a missed opportunity. Of course, there have to be cuts, otherwise having eight actors play upwards of twenty-five people is never going to work. We lost some characters; Madame La Belle delivered some of the lines originally spoken by Charles the wrestler; Jaques missed out on gathering people round and saying “Tis a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle” and a few other scenes were shifted around. Old retainer Adam accompanying Orlando on his journey to the forest takes place during the court scenes in this production, rather than later on in Arden as Shakespeare had it; and actually that change works very well. But then, if you objected to these changes because you’re that much of a Shakespeare purist, an Oxford garden production possibly might not be for you.

Jaques and Duke SeniorNot only do the cast exhibit boundless energy, but they also have a great sensitivity to, and understanding of the motivations and personalities of the characters. For example, the shocked, grieved reaction by Rebecca Tanwen’s Rosalind at her treatment by the Duke her uncle is tangible and very moving. Later on, she really gets into the part of Ganymede – truly the blueprint for Blackadder’s “Bob” – and becomes a very fetching tomboy; no wonder Orlando goes along with the wooing game. Charlotte Hamblin expresses all Celia’s qualities of honour and loyalty as she sticks with Rosalind through the banishment, and then gives us a marvellous long-suffering act of a fish out of water, as she pretends to be Aliena, adopting a “don’t you know who I am” tone on arrival in the forest, then putting up with Ganymede’s impetuosities, and playing a splendidly irritated second fiddle until Oliver arrives on the scene.

OrlandoDavid Alwyn (excellent here last year in The Merry Wives of Windsor, sadly no puppets for him to play with this year) puts in another superb performance as Orlando, the thoroughly decent, honest and much wronged younger brother of the selfish and power-hungry Oliver. He gives a great impression of a soppy lovelorn when pining for his beloved Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosalind (you’ll have to see the show to get that joke), but also brings out Orlando’s heroic nature very successfully, with his magnanimity in wrestling victory and his generous behaviour toward the frail servant. Completing the courtly foursome is Alexander McWilliam (also an OSC stalwart, with his hilarious interpretation of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream two years ago) playing three roles, although it feels like four characters; Audreyportraying the early Oliver as a brutal bully with a heart of ice who then transforms into the later Oliver bearing the cheeriest of smiles and bravely going weak-at-the-knees at the sight of Celia. He’s also Charles the wrestler (clearly putting in extra time at the gym) and, most significantly, the enigmatic character of Jaques. My memory of Emrys James’ performance as Jaques in that 1978 RSC production is that he was totally grumpy and bad tempered throughout. Mr McWilliam’s performance is superbly subtle – the text describes the character as melancholy and that’s precisely how he comes across: reserved, reflective, world-weary but not bitter, with an unsentimental grip on reality shown nowhere better than with the famous Seven Ages of Man speech. It’s a performance of so many facets that you simply can’t categorise it. With a role that’s easy to caricature, this Jaques is a real, complex person.

Rosalind to be wedDavid Shelley is very convincing as both Dukes, the usurper at court and the genuine one in the forest, where he is a generous and jovial sort, dispensing wisdom and shelter where it’s needed; and he’s also a very entertaining, if slightly eccentric, old shepherd Corin. George Haynes plays Silvius as a charmless teenager – Shakespeare missed a trick by not thinking of “whatever” as a retort; he’s also delightful – I think that’s the word – as the simpering but not to be underestimated Audrey, who I would guess will have many surprises for Touchstone on their wedding night. There’s a terrific performance by Rosalind Steele, first as Madame La Belle who forcefully reminded me of the young Penelope Keith, and then as the rather scary Phoebe, wanting no dalliance with the useless Silvius and lolloping in love after Ganymede, but portraying genuine heartache when she discovers that there really could never be a future for the two of them. And Rob Witcomb (yet a third OSC alumnus, a brilliant Doctor Caius in Merry Wives) gives us a very sophisticated and intelligent Touchstone – not that that stops him from being ravaged with lipstick kisses, of course – and a sad and moving portrayal of the seventh age of man in the form of Adam.Celia to be wed

Add to all that music, dancing, letters in trees, wrestling, and a real live barbecue, and you’ve got another great OSC show. It’s on until the 15th August and I unhesitatingly recommend it to you!

P. S. I had to adopt my grumpy tone with a few French students (I presume they were students) constantly muttering away throughout the whole play. Sing little birdiesThe first glance didn’t shut them up, nor did the second; and the third, my usually successful “lingering look” barely registered. So I was forced to turn round and say “will you be quiet please”, and they looked at me as if I was spoiling the play for them. They stayed quiet for about three minutes. I can only presume that one was translating for the others as the play progressed. “Qu’est-ce que c’est? Une femme habillée comme un homme? Nom d’un nom d’un nom! Sacré Bleu! Et maintenant? Un homme habillé comme une femme? Oh mon Dieu! Boff, des Anglais….”

The splendid photographs of the production are by Ben Galpin of Malvolio Media.

Review – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 1st August 2013

Merry Wives of WindsorWadham College gardens on a hot summer’s evening; what could be lovelier. A picnic of crisps, salad, fruit and exquisite nutty biscuits; a bottle of Tesco’s Simply Muscadet (weird to think they only charged me £2.51 for it), and front row seats for this year’s Oxford Shakespeare Company production, those Merry Wives of Windsor. It was actually this play that got us interested in the OSC eight years ago. We knew nothing about the company and just bought tickets on spec; and were immediately hooked. It was one of the funniest shows we’ve ever seen, and to this day Mrs Chrisparkle and I will hoot with laughter if we recall to mind Doctor Caius and his cuddly Fishy. You had to be there.

Sarah Goddard and Katharine Bennett-FoxMerry Wives is one of those plays that’s hardly ever studied, because Shakespeare rattled it off in a couple weeks to please the Queen who wanted to see Falstaff in love. As a result it contains little of his usual beautiful language, intense concepts and character insights; instead it’s pure sitcom. Consequently it’s one of the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays to mess around, change the text and do what you want with it, and no purist is going to give a damn; and that’s one of the OSC’s strengths – they are brilliant at reinventing comedies and redefining characters in new locations and times.

David AlwynThis Merry Wives takes place at the annual Windsor fete. This must be the apocryphal fete worse than death, with squabbling families, randy publicans, wayward yoof and shameless gossip. When I tell you it has musical interludes that include the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon and Space’s Female of the Species, you’ll realise that nothing is being taken too seriously here. Basically, Sir John Falstaff gets it in his head that he would fancy a sexual dalliance with both Mistresses Ford and Page, so gets his minions to deliver identical love letters to both – schoolboy error there, I’d say – and, appalled by the prospect of a little how’s your father with that revolting gutbucket, the ladies plan their counter-attack, which includes Mistress Ford shaking up her husband a bit as well. When all the plotting is uncovered, almost everyone in the story decides to go in for the kill on Falstaff, making him feel as much of an idiot as possible, with a final humiliating revenge. Whilst all this is happening the unsuitable suitors of Mistress Anne Page take their eye off the ball and she instead gets hitched to dashing gent Fenton; and it all ends happily ever after.

IMG_3227It’s always a delight to see the imagination and commitment of the OSC’s creative team – Gemma Fairlie’s direction and the incredibly talented cast, and the extraordinary amount of effort they put in to make each production a success. This one is no different. Justice Shallow here is a Punch and Judy man, and his cousin Slender is – you guessed it – a puppet, and David Alwyn’s performance as both characters is both funny and immensely skilful. However, the first few scenes are stolen by the appearance of “Panda” – surprisingly absent from Shakespeare’s Folio – a superb example of an OSC liberty-taking that works so well. If they weren’t enough roles for Mr Alwyn he also appears as the suave-and-he-knows-it Fenton, who wouldn’t look out of place in “Made in Chelsea”. More TV references to follow.

David McKechnieMistress Ford and Mistress Page are a great double act and are portrayed here as quite unlikely pals, which adds to the fun. Sarah Goddard’s Mistress Page is a hearty green-wellie brigade member, with a headscarf that makes her look like the Queen off-duty in Balmoral and a booming stage whisper when she’s abetting Mistress Ford trick Falstaff. Katharine Bennett-Fox makes Mistress Ford a pretty posh and well-to-do young thing, who summons her staff with a bell (but so nicely and refinedly); and later becomes a seething mass of vengefulness, cloaked in Fondant Fancies. Aspects of her character reminded me strongly of Miranda Richardson as Queenie in Blackadder II. This being a typical OSC production, everyone doubles up with roles, so they also take the parts of Falstaff’s street ruffians Pistol and Nym, with graffiti on their trousers and a fine line in “innit” conversation. The contrast between the characters only serves to increase the humour.

Rob WitcombHeather Johnson is a great Mistress Quickly, very much the Everyman (Everywoman?) character, a servant to many masters and a gossiper about them all. She has a wonderful connection with the audience, and occasionally put me in mind of Matt Lucas as one of many Little Britain characters. David McKechnie is a marvellously supercilious Ford, with no time for anything but himself until his wife reigns him in; a totally incongruous American cowboy Master Brook (Ford in disguise, hope you’re keeping up), and a delightfully meddling Parson Hugh Evans. Rob Witcomb is both the Archers-theme whistling landowner Page, reminiscent of the Fast Show’s Ralph, if you remember that; and a completely hilarious fey Doctor Caius, all fluttering hands and destroyer of language. Rachel WaringIn the performance we saw, there was one superb awry moment where Doctor Caius became detached from his wig after a pratfall; Mr McKechnie re-wigged him beautifully and Mr Alwyn corpsed for the rest of the scene. Rachel Waring made a bewitching Mistress Anne Page and she and Fenton are going to have beautiful babies together. As Falstaff’s messenger Robin, she reminded me of the girl-dressed-as-a-boy servant Bob in Blackadder II. Right, no more TV references.

Jack TaylorThe only actor who doesn’t double up – and rightly so – is Jack Taylor who gives a tremendously funny and physical performance as Falstaff; lecherous and disgusting but never over the top, he has a superb stage presence and by rights really ought to be a jolly butcher in a farm shop – he has that look. Convincing throughout, and bringing joy to the stage with every appearance, I have to highlight the brief scene where he is felled by Doctor Caius and Parson Evans in slow motion; it’s physical comic genius. A very full audience absolutely loved the production and gave it huge cheers at the end. The last performance is on 16th August – you should definitely catch it if you can. A worthy addition to the OSC’s oeuvre!

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College, Oxford, 18th August 2012

A Midsummer Night's DreamOur annual visit to Oxford to see the Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College was a bit late this year – all that rain in July doesn’t make you want to sit in the wet watching rude mechanicals, no matter how entertaining they are. Then came the Olympics so everything else got put on hold. But fortunately, the sun came out and the rain went away for last Saturday so Mrs Chrisparkle and I were able to gather together a party of seven, including Lady Duncansby and our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra (plus their mum and dad) to stake our place in the front row for the matinee of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Gemma Fairlie. This is the second time that the OSC has staged Dream, the first being a few years ago now, but this is a completely different production, less ethereal and more farcical.

Antony JardineIt’s such a privilege to spend an afternoon with picnic and Pinot watching the Bard brought alive with some modern tricks in a contemporary setting. This Theseus is the Head of an Oxford College, and Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are undergraduates. The first line has Theseus on his mobile complaining about bikes parked in the wrong place (“I don’t care if they do belong to Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, get them moved!”) and so if you’re the kind of purist who doesn’t appreciate that kind of addition to the text, you might find this production a bit of a challenge. But I always say that a modern version doesn’t rewrite the original, and I’m always up for a jazzy version of Shakespeare.

Andrew VenningThe first couple of scenes are actually played in promenade, so we all left our hard fought-for seats and went to the garden entrance to see Theseus in a tizzy and Lysander proposing to Hermia, whilst Helena ham-fistedly spies on them from behind a bush. There’s absolutely no denying this production of Dream is played to get the maximum laughs available – and it really succeeds. Bottom – this time a gardener and not a weaver – arrives and encourages us to another part of the garden where he and Peter Quince start dividing up the parts for Pyramus and Thisbe. Alexander McWilliam There don’t appear to be any other members of their troupe so audience members are approached to be Flute and Snout – but don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything if you are chosen; it’s just a good excuse for a bit of jolly banter. Mind you, later on two audience members were chosen to play the lion and the moonshine, and the laughter of the little girl playing the moon almost stole the show!

Rebecca NaylorBy the time Puck has enticed us back to our seats (where we stay for the rest of the show) any barrier that might have existed between audience and cast has been well and truly broken. What then comes over particularly well with this production is its high level of active physical comedy. As usual a number of the roles are doubled up – and in the case of Antony Jardine, tripled up, with the result that he’s barely ever off stage. His Theseus marks the bookends at the beginning and end of the play, but he’s also Quince – who himself doubles up as Flute, playing Thisbe – and also Oberon; and he tackles all of these roles with great verve and humour. I don’t know how he manages all the costume changes. Also responsible for a lot of very funny horseplay are Andrew Venning as Lysander and Alexander McWilliam as Demetrius, who basically fight like girls, do excellent po-faced sincerity at the Rachael Henleybehest of Hermia or Helena, or neither, or both; roll around in the grass a lot and attack the physical comedy head on. How can Demetrius resenting having his hair ruffled be so funny? There’s a scene where Oberon, who has the ability to charm anyone to sleep or awakeness with a beckoning of his hand, casts a spell on Demetrius by rubbing his big toe on either side of Demetrius’ cheeks. Mr Jardine must have been in a mischievous mood for the last Saturday matinee of the run – I don’t think Demetrius was expecting Oberon to rub the full length of the underneath of his foot right down the centre of Demetrius’ face so that the poor stunned Mr McWilliam was effectively podiatrically violated in the cause of comedy – fair play, he just managed to keep a straight face.

Helen Bang Rebecca Naylor’s Helena is a comedy sensation; with her secretary glasses and attractively gawky presence, she turns in a beautiful performance that encompasses down-trodden lovelorn to unwilling dominatrix and she is very funny. Rachael Henley’s Hermia is suitably more straightforward, but with a touch of the Catherine Tate’s Lauren about her and Helen Bang makes a very classy Titania/Hippolyta.Mark Pearce Mark Pearce is great as Bottom – his clowning is nicely underplayed and his backchat with the audience emphasises the artificiality of the situation. Hiran Abeysekera’s Puck has a great vocal range and is really well cast, looking like a diminutive sprite with a penchant for mischief. You share in his enjoyment of the farcical, and you feel sorry for him when he is criticised. I suspect Mr Abeysekera may well have a very good future in the theatre.

Hiran AbeysekeraThe play has been quite heavily cut in parts – which makes sense with a production lacking a number of the minor characters. However I did get a bit irked by the fact that Titania kept on referring to her fairy companions when there weren’t any – I rather wish those lines had been cut too. A minor detail. You won’t come away from this Midsummer Night’s Dream with a deeper understanding of its central themes of love and marriage, abuse of authority, identity and imagination; but you will remember scene after scene packed with laughs and inventive comedy. It’s an excellent production to mark the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s tenth anniversary, and the audience loved it.

 

Review – Comedy of Errors, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 13th August 2011

Comedy of ErrorsThere are few greater privileges in life than to be able to relax in the beautiful gardens of Wadham College Oxford, take in a picnic, enjoy a bottle of something velvety, and watch a performance by the Oxford Shakespeare Company. We’ve been coming here for many years now, and it’s always a joy. Some years are more joyous than others, depending on the plays. This summer they are bringing back two of their greatest hits. One is The Importance of Being Earnest, which we saw first time around, and is a super show. We may, if we get time and the weather is kind, try and see it again. The other is The Comedy of Errors, first performed by the OSC in 2004, one year before we discovered them. So it was with relish that we bagged our front row seats for last Saturday’s matinee.

Even if you’re a Shakespeare purist, “Comedy of Errors” is one of those plays that really lends itself to modernising and being messed around. On paper, the opening scene is exceptionally wordy and really rather tedious; but there’s no escaping it, otherwise the rest of the play doesn’t make sense. Chris Pickles’ delightful production does a huge amount of messing around with the play, re-inventing that opening scene in Ephesus TV’s studio as a game show, with host and hostess in sparkly garments, challenging Egeon to raise the money for his liberty else he dies, and all just for a bit of fun.

Another piece of inventiveness in this production is the use of Hollywood style songs, which certainly raise a smile and have been chosen cleverly to reflect the story. Some of the cast prove themselves to be very good at the song-and-dance routines! As a device, this didn’t quite work for me, but mainly because of the way I first encountered this play. When I was 17 I was lucky enough to be in the front row at the Aldwych for the RSC’s production by Trevor Nunn, with songs by Guy Woolfenden and starring Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Roger Rees, Francesca Annis, Mike Gwilym and many other brilliant performers. Guy Woolfenden took Shakespeare’s lines and wove them into brilliant, story-progressing songs. The Hollywood songs in this production are apt, but they don’t move the story forward – my bugbear in musical theatre.

Another joke that wore thin for me was the use of sound effects. Maybe I’m still suffering from Government Inspector overkill. Part of the circus/madcap/Keystone Kops element in this production includes cheeky sound effects to accompany many of the bits of comedy business. A horn honk for a slap on the tummy, a kazoo rasp for a kick up the bum, a fart sound for… well a fart actually; you get the picture. Funny and clever – at first… but then I have to confess it did slightly get on my nerves by the time we approached the interval. There was one extremely good sound effect – the sassy symbols that heralded each arrival of the Courtesan, more of whom later.

Howard GossingtonNow those topics are out of the way, I can tell you about the wonderful cast. One actor plays both Antipholuses and one both Dromios. That calls for a lot of hard work! Stand out brilliant was Howard Gossington as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus. I had wondered how they would differentiate between the two characters – costume changes I supposed. And yes they do – Antipholus of Ephesus wears a gracious tie and sports a well to do hat, whilst his Syracusian brother has a tie-dye type thing and a fedora. But it’s almost unnecessary, as Mr Gossington invests both brothers with completely different vocal patterns and mannerisms; Ephesus is a rather posh travelling type who obviously went to a good school, and Syracuse is a bit of a Millwall supporting troublemaker. Both characterisations really worked well and it’s a great performance.

Nick ChambersNick Chambers as the two Dromios also puts in a good comic performance but the differences between the two servants are not so easy to define and so we rely a little more on his changing hat – white for Ephesus, black for Syracuse. I particularly enjoyed the relish with which he described the ghastly Nell, who had fallen for him.

Alicia Davies For the Antipholine love interest, Alicia Davies is a stunning Adriana, in a sexy red dress and with cleavage bursting for freedom. She captures all the comedy of Adriana’s shrewish tendencies superbly, although she may slightly underdo her tenderer moments. Alyssa Noble Alyssa Noble makes an excellently bookish Luciana, and preens with hilarious pleasure when Antipholus makes amorous advances towards her.

Benjamin WellsThe other members of the cast all bring great verve and vivacity to their characters; amongst the many parts they play, Benjamin Wells’ Angelo is Alan Sugar with added elegance; Kai SimmonsKai Simmons is a superb Marlon Brando Godfather Balthazar, with a brilliant Mafia voice and mannerisms; Andrew Piper’s Officer is a hilarious sixth member of the Village People; and stealing every scene,Andrew Piper James Lavender, appearing as every other female character, creates a Germanic Jessica Rabbit Courtesan with a high level of naughtiness about her – which included in the show we saw, her singling me out for some amorous attention and the promise of free Bratwurst after the performance. That was just one of many really funny interactions between cast and audience throughout the whole show that were carried off with great aplomb.

James LavenderThere’s a marvellously surreal sequence where Dromio appears to apologise for a bad bit of acting because he can’t quite understand Shakespeare’s drift, whereupon the whole cast turn into a bunch of text-dissecting pretentious luvvies trying to get to the heart of the meaning. I was completely fooled by the scene and genuinely thought Dromio was annoyed with his performance, until the rest chipped in. It’s a magnificent piece of invention. There’s also a bang up-to-date scene with Antipholus’ shopping bags with light references to looting and cross-dressing. Extremely funny stuff.

I’d highly recommend it. Even the aspects I didn’t really care for didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of this gusto-filled performance by a captivating cast in fabulous surroundings.