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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Ikin Yum

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Richard III, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1st July 2022

Richard IIIThe Royal Shakespeare Company continues its trawl through the annals of the House of Plantagenet, specifically following on from the recent productions of Rebellion and Wars of the Roses, with this strikingly designed new production of Richard III, and a satisfying continuity of casting in many of the leading roles, including the welcome return of Arthur Hughes as King Richard, the first time a disabled actor has taken this part in the history of the Company.

Arthur HughesEdward IV reigns as King of England, but Richard, Duke of Gloucester has other ideas. First, eliminate his kindly brother George, Duke of Clarence. Then marry Lady Anne, who had been previously married to Henry VI’s son Edward of Westminster, who died at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Edward IV dies naturally, but Richard can’t tolerate his son, the twelve year old Edward V, being king. He enlists the Duke of Buckingham to engineer his path to the throne, but when Buckingham refuses to kill Edward, he gets professional assassin Tyrell to do the deed instead. The young prince is murdered in the tower along with his brother. But it’s still not enough; and when Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, arrives with an army to claim the throne, it results in the Battle of Bosworth Field and we all know what happened there. (You don’t? You’ll have to see this play then.)

Nicholas ArmfieldShakespeare didn’t hold back from presenting Richard as the architect of a lot of blood and violence, and Gregory Doran’s production rings the changes by portraying these deaths in a wide range of styles, from the literally gory to the subtly suggested. It is perhaps curious that Shakespeare does not let us see the actual death of King Richard in battle: “Alarums. Enter King Richard and Richmond; and exeunt fighting. Retreat and flourish. Re-enter Richmond, Stanley bearing the crown, with divers other Lords, and Forces.” This gives a director carte blanche to finish Richard III off in whatever manner they wish, and Mr Doran has chosen to make it rather elegant and ethereal. Matt Daw’s inventive lighting design is used extensively to convey death, with maybe a quick flash of red light to depict one dispatch, or the visceral descent of vivid red seeping down the one feature of the set, a cenotaph-style tower, to suggest others. Death’s never far away in this play.

Matthew Duckett and Arthur HughesI know this isn’t a football match, but this production really is a game of two halves. Even with some judicious cutting, this is a long play, and the first Act takes us all the way from Shakespeare’s beginning to Act Four Scene One. The second Act begins with Richard’s coronation, Act Four Scene Two. As a result, we have more or less two hours before the interval, but then little more than an hour afterwards. Although there are obviously some highlights – the wannabe king’s pretence that he doesn’t seek the crown and is much happier with his virtuous Bible study is a sheer delight –  the first Act has more than its fair share of longueurs. The second Act, however, is stuffed with theatrical magic and flies by. The exquisite grandeur of the Coronation. The knife-edge debate between Richard and Elizabeth regarding his plan to marry her daughter. The superb staging of the Ghosts that taunt Richard the night before Bosworth Field, and how they merge to become his ghostly horse for which he’d give his kingdom.

Minnie Gale as MargaretHowever, the overall vibe of the production is distinctly uneven. It veers from bloodthirsty tragedy to deep dark farce, and you can never quite pin down exactly what it is that Doran wants us to take away from it. On the one hand, for example, you have a very traditional presentation of the bereft Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow, with Minnie Gale giving a very accomplished portrayal of someone so destroyed by grief that they have lost all their senses. On the other hand, the two murderers almost descend to vaudeville with their interchanges and re-appear very tongue-in-cheek as the two godly clerics either side of Richard when’s he allegedly resisting being made king. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set suggests the staging is purely of its actual era – the music, the costumes etc are all truly fifteenth century; but then you have a couple of anachronistic piece to camera moments from Richard and his rival Richmond just before the battle as if we were watching CNN.

Eloise Secker and Mical BalfourFortunately the production is blessed with some terrific performances, none more than Arthur Hughes as Richard. Because Mr Hughes genuinely has a physical disability, that frees him up from the arduousness of adopting a stoop or mimicking a hunchback, so visually it’s a much more convincing presentation than you’ve ever seen the character before. With ambition written through him like a stick of rock, he fair darts about the stage in his quest to Get Kingship Done, as the phrase might be today. He doesn’t care if we like him or not; he sees other people as either useful tools or mere obstructions and has no compunction about dismissively eliminating them – even his own wife. Mr Hughes is completely riveting throughout the play, his eyes calculating risks, his gestures mocking all those around him, his vocal delivery conveying that spoilt petulance of a man who can see no other outcome than his own preferment. It’s a wonderful performance.

Claire BenedictKirsty Bushell is also superb as Queen Elizabeth Woodville, controlling her own grief and behaviour with quiet suppression, as a perfect contrast to the brashness of the King, or the loud lamentation of Margaret. Claire Benedict has fantastic stage presence and natural authority as the Duchess of York, and Rosie Sheehy cuts exactly the right amount of fury and suffering as Lady Anne. Jamie Wilkes’ Buckingham is delightfully conspiratorial, punching the air with a very un-Shakespearean Yes! when Richard manipulates his way to the throne. Micah Balfour is excellent as the good-humoured, trusting Hastings, Nicholas Armfield is a suitably noble Earl of Richmond (he also has a terrific moment as the Bishop of Ely when King Richard commends his strawberries), and there’s great support from Matthew Duckett as Catesby and Simon Coates as Stanley.

Joeravar Sangha and Conor GleanIn addition, Ben Hall absolutely captures Clarence’s innocence and shock at being fatally lied to, and Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are simply brilliant as the Murderers. And huge appreciation for our Boy Treble, whose vocal purity cut through the villainy like a sword of light; for our performance on Friday night, we think he was Lysander Newton, but I am sure all four taking the role are terrific.

Jamie WilkesPart gruesome drama, part black comedy; at times slow and cumbersome, at others jam-packed with incident. A bit like life, really. But it’s the many highlights that you remember and that you appreciate, and this production is certainly a convincing and memorable end to the Plantagenets. It continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre all the way through till 6th August when it is joined with the new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, and then both continue until 8th October.

 

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Henry VI Rebellion/Wars of the Roses, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th May 2022

Rebellion and Wars of the RosesLate to the party for these two History plays which opened in April whilst we were gallivanting on holiday around Scotland, but very happy to have caught up with them now. You might not recall Shakespeare writing plays called Rebellion or Wars of the Roses; that’s because they are, in fact, distillations from the great man’s Henry VI Parts Two and Three, which I was fascinated to discover were written before Henry VI Part One according to the programme, so presumably Part One is an early example of a prequel.

The Cast of RebellionPicture the scene: Young and easily manipulated, Henry VI has married Margaret of Anjou. At the wedding breakfast, he’s chuffed that he’s got the girl; she’s even more chuffed that she’s got the country. But when Uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, reads the marriage treaty, he falters and can’t believe what he’s reading. It’s like the Northern Ireland Protocol but even harder to swallow. The concessions the King has made are worse than expected but Henry defends them as robust and oven-ready. Hang on, am I confusing this with News at Ten?

Arthur HughesAs a result all sorts of machinations get underway to make a play for kingship. Enemies are got out of the way (normally fatally), the crown gets passed from pillar to post; there’s even an uprising from the masses under Jack Cade. The Duke of York is the chief pretender; his three sons support his claim, although not consistently, and, by the end of the second play, (spoiler alert) young Richard Plantagenet, who would become king twelve years later, confronts the weak and mentally disturbed King Henry, and despatches him with a very vindictive knifing. Looking ahead, the RSC’s next production will be Richard III, with a continuation of the same actors in the roles that appear in both plays; I’m loving the continuity.

Oliver Alvin-Wilson and castBut that’s a matter for later in the summer. Owen Horsley’s magnificent double-production is slick, smart, haunting, and riveting. The biggest design idea, for want of a better word, is to have a roaming camera that creates a huge projection on the backdrop that closes in on the faces of the protagonists at telling moments. It’s a risky practice, but it works brilliantly, especially if you are seated in the front section of the audience, so you see it head on, as we did for Rebellion. Seated on the side, as we were for Wars of the Roses, the projection is a little harder to make out, and the camera operators on stage are a little more noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s a master stroke. It works particularly well when the camera is on the actors off-stage, such as when it follows Cade and his entourage encircling the building – very conspiratorial and alarming!

Al MaxwellAll the usual aspects of the production are done superbly, as you would expect with the RSC. Hannah Clark’s costumes, Simon Spencer’s lighting, Steven Atkinson’s warlike sound effects (I bet they make you jump) are all first rate. Sometimes I find the live music in such productions a little intrusive, but in this case it’s just perfect, performed live by six great musicians to Paul Englishby’s compositions. And – something you can’t always say with modern day Shakespeare – it’s strangely comforting to see a production that hasn’t been reset in a different time or location from what Will originally planned.

Mark QuartleyThe cast are superb throughout. Central to the whole six hours is Mark Quartley as Henry, portrayed as a man who’s never at ease. A man who never wanted to be king, but longed to be a subject, this Henry is slow to react to victory, cautious in the face of adversity, prone to depression and looks to his Bible for support. Minnie Gale’s brilliant Margaret is a perfect opposite to him; demonstrative, sarcastic, not remotely reticent about showing her sexual preference for the Duke of Suffolk, to the extent that she cradles the latter’s disembodied head after it has been sliced off by a very upbeat band of pirates. Henry’s passive acceptance that his Queen is mourning the death of Suffolk more than might seem appropriate works well as a sign that he’s got bigger things to worry about. It’s worth noting that you’ll never see a larger collection of disembodied heads on stage than you do with these two plays. Kudos to the props department for making them look so like the equivalent actors. It made me wonder if they have a whole second selection of heads for when understudies are performing.

Richard Cant and Lucy BenjaminThe vast supporting cast is full of excellent performances too. It’s great to see Paola Dionisotti with the RSC again and her performance as Winchester in Rebellion is a pure joy, as she carefully enunciates every word he says to the fullest richness of expression; not a syllable is wasted. Oliver Alvin-Wilson is an imposing York, Ben Hall a sneaky Suffolk, Nicholas Karimi a forceful Warwick, and Minnie GaleArthur Hughes a manipulative and snide Richard. There’s brilliant support (amongst others) from Richard Cant, Lucy Benjamin, Daniel Ward and Peter Moreton. Among the minor roles, Aaron Sidwell stands out as a charismatically terrifying Jack Cade, an alarming combination of Pol Pot, Arthur Scargill and Edward Scissorhands. But everyone is on top form, and the big scenes of battle impress you with their power and their sheer drama.

Minnie Gale and Ben HallIt’s a very intense production; we saw both halves on the same day, but I would recommend seeing them over two separate days, just to catch your breath. If there is a problem with it all, it’s that you can see one too many battle scene. I guess the only person to blame there is Shakespeare. But with so many alarums and excursions, there’s only so much warring one person can take before the appreciation of it all starts to shut up shop.

You haven’t got long to catch up with these plays; Rebellion runs in repertory until 28th May; Wars of the Roses until 4th June. Definitely worth it though!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 25th February 2022

Much Ado About NothingYou know how you wait two years for a bus and then three all come along at once? This is the fate of Much Ado About Nothing for 2022. Not only has it been chosen as the opening “Big Play” for the RSC at the beginning of the year, but there’s also a production by Simon Godwin coming at the National Theatre this summer and in September we’re seeing a production by Robert Hastie at the Crucible in Sheffield. But then it is an enduringly popular play and there’ll always be a demand for it.

BenedickMichael Balogun, who was originally cast as Benedick, withdrew from the play days before Press Night which has played a spot of havoc with the timings for its reviews. But if we have learned nothing else from the pandemic, it’s that the show must go on. And there’s no doubt about it, it’s a fascinating production. If you are a loyal reader of my random jottings, you’ll know that one of my  watchwords is that I much prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. And this is one of those occasions. Yes, for the most part, this production fails to deliver on many levels. But, my word, does it put in a brave attempt to do so, and does it have a lot of fun getting there!

Claudio Leonato and HeroSet in some kind of futuristic otherworld, traditionally this play takes place in Messina, but this dramatis personae has been no nearer Italy than an outer space Pizza Express. This is a world of glowing orbs, fanciful fruits, swirly benches and magic blackboards. No extravagance is understated in the set or the costumes, with outrageous headdresses, topiaried hairdos, gold-emblazoned tabards, a Robocop-style constabulary and formal white wellies. Hero’s wedding dress resembles a huge butterfly, while Beatrice frequently reminds you that the spirit of Xena Warrior Princess is not dead. Facial make-up includes enough glitter, swirls and highlights to make Adam Ant look like a funeral director. Characters appear descending from the Flies or via a floral walkway. It’s as though Shakespeare has been taken over by The Magic Roundabout with Ermyntrude and Zebedee as the bickering lovers.

Aruna Jalloh and Adeola YemitanDone wrong, this could look cheap, tacky and ridiculous. But it’s a huge credit to Jemima Robinson’s set and Melissa Simon-Hartman’s costume design that it comes across as innovative, luxurious and aspirational. Imagine going on holiday to this futuristic playground – you’d be on a permanent high! Femi Temowo’s accompanying music is cleverly pitched, near-outrageous, and frequently off-putting; a kind of louche jazz that suggests a whole new notational language of music that we don’t recognise yet. You’d expect magic mushrooms in the saxophone and amphetamines in the keyboard, and it’s simply, thoroughly, delightfully and disconcertingly weird.

BeatriceThere are also some terrific performances, none more so than Akiya Henry’s irrepressible Beatrice, who gives us one hilariously cantankerous appearance after another, chockfull of inventive characterisations, impetuous mischief and some brilliant physical comic business. The best scene in the whole play is where, separately, both Benedick and Beatrice overhear how the other is apparently in love with them; and Ms Henry’s contortions to hide behind or blend in with the set’s outrageously stylised vegetation so she can’t be noticed is comedy genius. By comparison, Luke Wilson’s Benedick comes across as an unusually decent sort of chap, rather reasonable and sensible. As a result perhaps there aren’t quite as many fireworks set off in the interchanges between the two characters, but at least Benedick is a beacon of sobriety in an otherwise hippy-trippy world.

Don PedraAnn Ogbomo is also outstanding as Don Pedra (minor quibble, but shouldn’t she be a Donna?) with tremendous stage presence and a gloriously authoritative voice that commands you listen and pay attention. Micah Balfour is also excellent as the manipulating Don John, and Taya Ming also impresses as a rather childlike and fragile Hero. Karen Henthorn plays the difficult role of Dogberry purely for laughs and gives us some excellent malapropisms.

Don JohnWasn’t it Shakespeare who said – and I think it was – the play’s the thing? And that, sadly, is where this production starts to fall apart. In his vision for the play, director Roy Alexander Weise has turned all his attention to the look of the thing, but not much thought has gone into its meaning. The futuristic otherworld is beautifully realised, but what light does it shed on, say, the motivations of Don John, or the common sense of Claudio, let alone whether Benedick and Beatrice have a future together? The bright façade of the production has seeped through to the plot, making almost all the characters much more lightweight and shallower. There’s little sense of the danger or tragedy that lurks beneath the surface because it’s all just a bit too nice and bland.

The Cast of Much AdoIt also bumbles and stumbles along at a very slow pace, and at three-and-a-quarter hours feels way too long. The second half in particular gets very boring at times, and feels very stop-starty with the plot progression; you feel the occasional urge to mutter just get on with it, rather than stop for another bit of music and sombre standing around. Scene changes need to be more dynamic – Act One ends with a whimper rather than a bang and no one has a clue whether to applaud or not; the movement of the actors needs to be more decisive and meaningfull; in fact, the whole thing just needs to be a lot snappier.

UrsulaDefinitely a brave failure rather than a lazy success. I hope the RSC keeps the set and costumes and uses them to much more telling effect in another play. Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 12th March.

 

Production photos by Ikin Yum

3-starsThreesy Does It!

Review – The Magician’s Elephant, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 15th November 2021

I’d like to start this review with an old joke that was doing the rounds at school circa fifty years ago:

Question: What do you get when an elephant defecates (shorter words were used at the time) on a bell?

Answer:  DUNG!

The Magician's ElephantOne of the most wonderful things about theatre is that different members of the same audience can watch the same show and have so completely different a reaction to it. The Magician’s Elephant opened a couple of weeks ago to a range of mixed reviews, from 2 stars to 4 stars. At last night’s performance quite a few people gave it a standing ovation. As we were leaving the theatre, we heard one woman say to her friend that she enjoyed it more than Matilda. On the other hand, as we left the auditorium for the interval break, we heard another woman say to her child, “well, they do say that the second act is better than the first…” Such a wide range of reactions, an experience you can only get in the theatre. And it was a complete joy to be back in the happy buzz of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the first time since The Boy in the Dress almost exactly two years ago, before all that horrible pandemic interregnum.

NarratorAs a rule of thumb, I much prefer a brave failure of a production to a lazy success. However, gentle reader, it would be wrong of me to say I enjoyed something, and saw value and merit in something when neither was true. Thus, with a sad heart, I must report a serious crime to you. It happened on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last night. It involved a waste of the audience’s time, the cast’s talent, the RSC’s resources and, above all, the unforgivable theatrical crime of creating an evening of sheer tedium. Yes, I’m afraid, The Magician’s Elephant is a bit of a stinker. Shame indeed, as Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 children’s novel of the same name sounds rather a hoot. An anarchically inventive story where a boy named Peter suspects his sister (whom his guardian has told him is dead) is still alive, and a fortune-teller foresees that an elephant will lead him to her. Lo and behold, at the opera house, a magician performs a trick that makes an elephant crash through the ceiling. Surely some coincidence? How and why did it happen? Will Peter be reunited with his sister? Did the Opera House have insurance?

Queuing for the elephantFrom such inspirational lunacy Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler have distilled a book, music and lyrics totally lacking in spark, humour or emotion and have created a piece that’s as heavy and slow as a brigade of pachyderms. The constant repetition of lines within songs is abominable, and simply kills the show even before you consider any other aspects of it. As soon as one character comes up with a sentence, it gets pummelled to death by singing it again, and again, and again. (And again.) As the show went on, I tried my hardest to refrain from shouting out “noooo!” and “aaargh!” and “someone come up with another line!” at sequences like: “Follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant” which was closely followed by “don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant” ad nauseam. Bear in mind that at this stage of the show I don’t think we’d even seen the elephant yet – another problem of the show in that it’s all talk but precious little action.

Count and CountessIf I had a pound for every time the injured Mme LaVaughn bemoaned “I was crushed by an elephant” to which the magician responded with “I only meant lilies”, I could charter a private jet to Bermuda. Well, not quite, but you get my drift. The repetitions throughout were so exasperatingly boring, it was though it had been written as a punishment; stay behind after school and write fifty times, I must not follow the elephant. To be fair, there is one good song, The Count who doesn’t Count, but it’s elongated beyond elasticity so that by the end the fun of it has been extinguished. But for the most part the songs are drab, dreary and forgettable.

Peter and LutzMother always said, if you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing. Of course, as always, I will do my best to accentuate the good bits. This won’t take long. There is one very good performance by Jack Wolfe as Peter, who conveys a very real, wistful sense of loneliness, on a search for his missing sister to make his family complete again. He also has a great singing voice and an impish stage presence. I also enjoyed the performance of Miriam Nyarko as Adele, the feisty orphan with an inbuilt spirit of adventure/fantasist, possibly the only character who’s allowed to show a genuine sense of fun. Such a shame, then, that when the two are reunited as brother and sister (gasp! Who knew to look in the likeliest place to find her?) it’s a moment surprisingly devoid of emotion that registers no higher a reaction than an implied “oh, that’s nice”. Sam Harrison makes the best of the quirky Count Quintet and tries his damnedest to bring out as much humour as possible from his characterisation as a hen-pecked husband. Mark Meadows looks like he’s stepped out of another production as old soldier and Peter’s guardian Vilna Lutz, but that’s quite appropriate as the character is trapped in a post-war PTSD-style existence. It’s a shame that the production doesn’t integrate him more into the story.

Peter and the elephantAnd of course, there’s the elephant, who’s a technical treat and a slice of puppetry perfection; she looks pretty much like the genuine article and her trunk is carefully operated to cleverly express her thoughts. Sadly, the elephant only really has one thought, which is that she is sad and unwell and she wants to go home. Peter understands her plight and tells us that she is sad and unwell and wants to go home. In fact, he tells us several times. I think we understood it the first time, Peter. Sad and unwell and wants to go home? Yes. Sad and unwell and wants to go home.

Police ChiefElsewhere some of the characterisations go rather awry. Forbes Masson’s cartoony Police Chief is all light and no shade – all Keystone Kop where we could have done with the occasional whiff of Bergerac. Amy Booth-Steel’s narrator should have been a conduit between the Stratford audience she constantly chats with and a distant land of magic, but instead came across as rather smug and self-important. For our performance the role of Countess Quintet, usually played by Summer Strallen, was played by Alison Arnopp as a virtual copy of Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder 2. The endless screechy petulance wasn’t remotely endearing or entertaining even as a pantomime villain. Marc Antolin, an actor I always admire and who can create genuine magic on stage with his clown and movement skills, seems sadly restrained in his role as police officer Leo, and you only occasionally get a glimpse of his true talent.

LaVaughn Leo and MagicianThere are many underwhelming moments in this production; I choose only one to illustrate where it could have been so much better than it is. There’s a scene where Adele triumphantly gets to turn the tables on the wicked Count and Countess by strapping them down and hurling a bucket of elephant dung over them. It should be a moment where revenge is sweet and the baddies get their come-uppance. The dung should cover them and, much to their hilarious struggles to get away from it, they’re slopped with the stinky stuff. Everyone in the audience shrieks with disgusted delight. However. Instead, the Count and Countess, clearly no more strapped down than if a Christmas paper chain was securing them, get the bucket tipped over them to reveal it contains nothing more than a bit of few strands of grass or straw. It sits on the Countess’ lap and looks ridiculous. A true disappointment and an opportunity wasted.

Count Countess and AdeleA good Christmas show should be a thing of joy. What have the poor kids done to deserve this? Mrs Chrisparkle was itching to leave at the interval, which would have been a mistake for more than one reason. The interval lady was right, the second act is undoubtedly better than the first; for one thing, the plot actually progresses (whereas the first act is static and irrelevant) and there is some emotion (the first act is devoid of emotion). Regrettably, the emotion is pure schmaltz, but if you can somehow accept the tenet that the elephant is a symbol of a kinder, more wholesome society, then you might get something out of it. We couldn’t and didn’t. “Hate” is a strong reaction to a theatre production; I’ve only hated one other RSC show in the forty-five years since I first saw the company, and that was the recent Macbeth that became a prisoner to the misplaced vision of its director. But at least that had a vision, that you could disagree with. The Magician’s Elephant is rudderless, with a false sense of its own significance, and certainly of its own entertainment value. Couldn’t wait to leave.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

One wonders why they bothered

Review – The Comedy of Errors, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 20th July 2021

Comedy of ErrorsIt’s not often that one feels bound to include the word joyous so early in a theatre review, but these are exceptional times, and no other word expresses the true delight everyone felt at being back at the Royal Shakespeare Company in their wonderful new garden theatre. It’s always a treat to enjoy this most accessible and light-hearted of Shakespeare’s plays, although, amongst the fun, director Phillip Breen has emphasised all its darker and more uncomfortable elements. The result is a cross between a traditional, riotous fun-and-frolic-type approach and an unusually close inspection of the discomfort and detachment experienced by its characters.

The RSC is to blame for my love of Comedy of Errors, having sat in the front row of the Aldwych Theatre in December 1977 agog at the magnificent production by Trevor Nunn, which remains the best production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen (and – joy of joys – was recorded for posterity). The play adapts superbly to a summer outdoors setting – and the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Theatre provides both extremely comfy seating and an extraordinarily clear view of the stage. You can be sure, by the way, that the RSC has adopted a strong Covid-secure protocol not only to look after its audience but also its cast and crew, with a longer than usual interval (vital to get visits to both the bar and the toilets done in ample time) and excellent attention to social distancing and hygiene requirements. The super-helpful and plentiful front of house staff did a tremendous job.

You don’t need me to outline the story of the Comedy of Errors (but I will anyway). The states of Syracuse and Ephesus are on a war footing and Syracusan merchant Egeon is under arrest on penalty of death unless he can raise the thousand marks the law requires to save his life. Egeon has nothing to offer save his eloquence, but has no knowledge that one of his sons, and his son’s servant – and, indeed, his wife – have been living in Ephesus after they went missing in a sea disaster. Meanwhile his other son, (and other servant) turn up in Ephesus, looking for their brothers, and get mixed up in a comedy of mistaken identity – because they’re all identical twins. Plautus recognised a good joke when he saw one, didn’t he? I’m not breaking any spoilers when I tell you that Egeon doesn’t die.

Max Jones has created a simple but extremely effective set, with a tiled floor that recreates both cobbled streets and wealthy flooring, plus a back wall that parts in the middle to suggest the all-important abbey where the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio take refuge. Dyfan Jones’ sound design is superb; in particular, the comic scene between A of S and D of S, about the countries embedded in the realms of Luce’s body, works incredibly well with the sound tricks played by the imaginary microphones. One reservation though; at times, the sound of the four beatboxing vocalists became slightly overpowering. More of them later.

It’s the off-beat moments where the production strays from the typical reading of the play that gives you pause for thought. Sound and visual effects emphasise the cruelty of the beatings that Dromio receives from Antipholus of S; we see it as an abusive relationship, like a dog who keeps coming back to its master out of natural devotion but knows it’s only minutes till he will flinch again. And when Antipholus of E is locked out of his own home, the cacophony of howling ridicule that comes from the crowd is enhanced as a mental paranoia that profoundly disturbs and menaces his brain. No pantomime this. The ending, too, is strangely cold; whereas normally you might expect the two Antipholuses to clap each other on the back in an ecstatic reunion, here they’re barely able to look each other in the eye – and the text backs this reading up. The two Dromios consent to leave hand in hand, so a more physical reunion is appropriate; but their long, silent hug becomes uncomfortable as you realise that this is all too much for one of them.

The plays has a hard core of four central characters – the Antipholuses and the Dromios – two additional essential characters – Adrianna and Luciana – and a wealth of lively side characters, who, for me, really made the night. Antony Bunsee’s Egeon is the pinnacle of enfeebled dignity, holding everyone’s attention with his powerful tale of woe, who causes Nicholas Prasad’s excellent Duke Solinus to show unusual compassion. The two characters make a stark visual comparison, with Egeon’s faded glory juxtaposed with Solinus’ smart claret and blue uniform – obviously a member of the West Ham United Light Infantry. Bringing Egeon’s story to a happy conclusion is a fantastic performance by Zoe Lambert as Aemilia, setting the bar for Aemilias of the future, with her hard-hitting no-nonsense Yorkshire bluff providing an excellent comic presence but a perfectly accurate reading of the character.

There’s an extremely funny and vivacious performance by Baker Mukasa as the perplexed goldsmith Angelo, trying to balance his debtor and creditor with beaming but unsuccessful interpersonal skills until the money just isn’t there; I loved Alfred Clay’s Doctor Pinch, portrayed as a yogic charlatan in posing gold lamé; and Toyin Alyedun-Alase’s wonderful Courtesan creates a very striking figure as an almost-dominatrix, alluring and threatening at the same time – you wouldn’t want to cross her. William Grint breathes new life into the character of the gangster second merchant with some fantastic physical comedy, and together with his bodyguard Dyfrig Morris, show how disability can be a positive force on stage. Riad Richie, Patrick Osborne and, audience’s favourite, Sarah Seggari, all bring terrific comic support to their variety of roles.

Guy Lewis captures all Antipholus of Syracuse’s fish out of water status, but very nicely combined with that slight arrogance that accompanies the seasoned tourist traveller. Wonderful use of pauses highlight his polite confusion, and there’s a brilliant bit of comic business with a hand sanitiser that unites the problems of today with an age-old issue to genuine guffaws. Rowan Polonski channels his inner Rik Mayall with a frenetic Antipholus of Ephesus, wrapped up in his public image and desperate not to get a bad camera angle. He provides another strong physical comedy performance which gets him into all sorts of torturous bodily positions.

Jonathan Broadbent’s Dromio of S comes across as one of those servants who pretty much think they’re as important as their master with a degree of detachment and seriousness that helps him escape most of the on-stage madness; perhaps unlike Greg Haiste’s Dromio of E, who throws himself more into the traditional mayhem and comic physicality. When the back wall opens up to allow the brothers all meeting, Mr Broadbent is sat on the back wall, way backstage, deliberately visible and disconcerted, wondering whether he should get up and join the rest of them. That final scene of the long uncomfortable hug cleverly shows the difference between the two personalities. Hedydd Dylan’s Adrianna successfully conveys the character’s frustrations and anger at her husband’s inexplicable behaviour, but I didn’t think she always revealed the warmth or humour that lays beneath the exasperated surface. Avita Jay, though, is excellent as the spirited yet strictly non-feminist Luciana, who avers that a man is master of his liberty and is shocked at what appears to be her brother-in-law’s inappropriate behaviour.

One major bugbear with this production though: the music. It’s a personal thing, and I absolutely accept how skilful it is, and that I may well be out of kilter with everyone else; but I really dislike constant bombardment with vocal shenanigans beatbox-style. And the trouble is that these musical interludes not only separate each scene, but that they also drown out some important text (poor Egeon’s big speech at the beginning is basically ruined by their disrespectful soundtrack) and all to no end. Not only does the music add nothing to our understanding of the story, but it also actively gets in the way of it. Oh – and I didn’t understand all the shopping bags everywhere either.

I admired this production for its boldness in exploring the darker side of the play, and for revealing some essential differences of character between the two sets of brothers. And it’s also studded with some brilliant supporting performances. Not perfect, but certainly entertaining, and a wonderful return to live theatre from this amazing company.

Production photos by Pete Le May

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – The Whip, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th February 2020

85037056_2640541812857072_4756856668946432_nOdd title, The Whip. The first thing it brought to my mind was that implement with which you punish horses, or people, into painful submission. The second thing was a walnut-topped chocolatey confection, which sadly was very wide of the mark. The prime relevance of the title refers to its main character, Alexander Boyd, Chief Whip of the Whig Party in 1833, when this play is set. And of course, a political Whip is named after that aforementioned instrument of torture, as they whip the other MPs into the subservient position of what the party leaders want.

BoydA quick pre-show flick through the programme shamed me into recognising my own ignorance when it comes to the history of slavery – and, as far this play is concerned, how Parliament – eventually – brought about its abolition in Britain. I had no idea, for example, that there was a 26-year gap between passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and the Slavery Abolition Act. Nor that after abolition, the Government introduced a period of “apprenticeship” for the former slaves – where in fact they carried on precisely the same work, on virtually the same conditions; today we call them interns (just joking, or am I?) The only real difference is that the Slave Owners had been recompensed handsomely for loss of stock. These apprenticeships continued for a further five years. And I certainly didn’t know that the sums paid to the Slave Owners amounted to 40% of the national budget, and the necessary borrowing to account for this didn’t get paid off until – wait for it – 2015.

MaybourneIt’s clear that Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play is not only an exposé of those miserable years but also reflects parallels to Britain today. It’s emphatically not an allegory of Brexit; if it’s meant to be, it does a poor job. But there are elements that go to show that nothing is new in the world of British politics. A major project, with popular support, takes many years to be implemented. As a result of the final negotiations, a few prominent MPs and other businessmen become extraordinarily rich, whilst the country’s coffers are plundered. It takes ages for the country to regain its feet financially, the whole process creates a starting point for further political upheavals. On second thoughts, perhaps it is an allegory of Brexit.

Boyd on the Front BenchWe meet Boyd, who has befriended and adopted a younger runaway slave, Edmund, and groomed him to greatness with the possibility of a Parliamentary career. Boyd’s a good man, a principled man, with his heart in the right place; but also a practical man, who knows you have to walk before you can run. We see him in the House of Commons, surrounded by a noisy rabble and a Speaker whose pronouncements are delivered exactly like John Bercow, and he stands out as thoroughly respectable. He engages a feisty young woman, Horatia, as his cook/maid, not only because she stands up for herself, but also because her daughter was killed in a cotton-mill accident, and he feels like she is the kind of person who should be given a second chance. Also involved is the eloquent and respected ex-slave Mercy Pryce, who addresses the crowds at Speakers’ Corner, and who works with Boyd to influence thought and opinion. Whilst Mercy strives towards justice for slaves and Horatia demands votes for women, just how much will Society sit back and let all that change simply happen? And will Edmund achieve the greatness that Boyd expects of him?

FuriesGiven that this is a fascinating time of history, with some remarkable people working hard to put right an inestimable wrong, which still has consequences for the world today, I was disappointed at how pedestrian and dull the first Act, in particular, turns out to be. It’s very wordy and turgid; it moves slowly and with a strange sense of worthiness. It lacks dramatic tension and that special magic. Maybe this is because the play has been constructed as a kind of Greek Tragedy; with four characters designated as The Furies, the classical deities of vengeance. There’s a scene later in the play when Boyd goes to the Commons and is beset by the Furies who bump into him and accost him and prevent him from achieving his goals. And, frankly, it looks ridiculous. Particularly as, for the most part, the Furies act as scene shifters and general gophers. It’s the Furies who, Chorus-like,  wind up the story by addressing the audience directly with details of how the national debt from paying the Slave Owners wasn’t in the clear until 2015. But unlike a Greek Tragedy, we don’t have some cataclysmic ending or a deus ex machina to draw a line under the whole proceedings. The mix of contemporary political drama and stylised Greek tragedy didn’t sit well and I’m afraid I couldn’t take the Furies seriously.

HoratiaPerhaps the main problem with the play – which is a brave problem and therefore to be admired – is that it is simply too ambitious, trying to tie up too many ideas, and trying to make too many associations, so that it stretches itself without resolving anything. Whilst it spends a long time establishing the characterisations of the protagonists, the story doesn’t progress much, and everything feels ponderous and cumbersome – like that really irritating table that descends and ascends throughout the whole evening as a centrepiece for many of the scenes. Never has a simple piece of furniture-shifting monopolised your sightline so much as to get in the way of telling a story.

Mercy and HoratiaFortunately, there are some very good performances that just about pull you through the long three hours of this show. The double-act, if you could call them that, of Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce and Katherine Pearce as Horatia Poskitt, provide most of the energy of the play. Ms Pearce impresses with her spiky retorts and generally bullish behaviour so that the stage brightens up when she comes on. Ms Korley’s measured and dignified performance completely challenges your preconceptions about how an ex-slave would behave.

Hyde VilliersRichard Clothier’s Boyd is also full of dignity – until he’s brought low by duplicitous colleagues – and he gives a great portrayal of a flawed, but good man in the most trying of circumstances. He also has an extraordinarily rich voice that demands your attention. John Cummins’ Cornelius Hyde Villiers is a nasty piece of work, in politics for all the wrong, self-seeking reasons, but creates a very believable person out of what otherwise could be merely a pantomime baddie. David Birrell plays Lord Maybourne, the Home Secretary, as very comfortably pompous and manipulating, a man who is naturally your (indeed, anyone’s) superior. And Tom McCall’s Bradshaw Cooper is a very credible portrayal of a difficult, tetchy, driven politician, the type we’d all like to punch on the nose.

EdmundWe didn’t understand why Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Purnell was portrayed as such a terrified, jittery idiot; and what I suspect was meant to be a largely comic scene, where he is primed for his Select Committee appearance, felt to me a bit embarrassing. And Corey Montague-Sholay’s Edmund was so refined, so reserved, so delicate and private, that I feel we never really got to know him.

Bradshaw CooperI’ll be honest with you – Mrs Chrisparkle slept through at least half of the first Act and a quarter of the Second Act, which does indeed prove one thing; in waking hours, the second Act is twice as entertaining as the first. However, being bored in the theatre is the ultimate drama crime, and I can’t help but think that a play with this riveting source material and timeless relevance should have delivered a hugely greater impact. However, I always say I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success, and, given the quality of some of the performances, I have to add an extra star to what I feel this show otherwise deserves. The Whip continues in repertory at the Swan Theatre until 21st March.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – The Boy in the Dress, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 27th November 2019

78499535_547894199335799_2318101661920264192_nHotly awaited comes this brand-new musical to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a pedigree as long as a dachshund. David Walliams’ book (his first) has been adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill (of Shopping and F***ing fame), with music and lyrics by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers. Directed by RSC Supremo Gregory Doran, heading the cast is the inimitable and versatile Rufus Hound, with a fabulous (and I do not use the word lightly) set by Robert Jones and a delicious-sounding band led by Alan Williams. All well and good so far!

DennisAnd indeed, it’s all well and good for the most part. I’ve not read Mr Walliams’ book but a quick flick at a synopsis suggests that the musical is very true to the original and is a story with its heart fixed firmly in the right place. 12-year-old Dennis is the top scorer in the school football team, but his life has been shattered by his mum walking out on the family home and leaving him with just his dad and older brother John. Whilst Dad sits around indulging in comfort food and John is out doing his own thing, there’s a big mum-shaped hole in Dennis’ life. Dad has burned all the photos of her, save one that was accidentally rescued by Dennis, where she’s wearing that yellow dress that he always associates with her. One day, whilst buying this week’s Shoot! magazine in Raj’s corner shop, Dennis spies an edition of Vogue with a beautiful yellow dress on the cover and he can’t resist buying it. Hoping to gain the attention of the most desirable girl in the school Lisa James, Dennis allows her to dress him up in her new fashion creation, an orange sequined dress; and he loves it. But how will this go down with his friends, family and headmaster? You’ll have to watch it to find out!

ExpelledIn these days where schoolchildren are being taught (quite rightly, imho) that there should be No Outsiders, and society seems to be getting less and less tolerant, this feels like a timely addition to the debate about the human condition. I’m sure there are more plays that examine what it’s like to be a cross-dresser, but this is the first I can remember since Robert Morley and John Wells’ A Picture of Innocence back in 1978, and certainly the first involving a child. Its message of acceptance is simple and clear; it doesn’t erroneously conflate it with homosexuality, and beware of anyone who doesn’t accept you as you are, because they’re likely to be hypocrites. I always guessed that a certain someone would have a guilty secret; I was right.

Lisa James and DennisAt its best, this is an irresistibly charming production, with some great flashes of humour, both spoken and physical. The prancing arrival of the posh boys’ football team has you hooting with derision. When Lisa James peeks through Dennis’ bedroom window and he asks how she got there, the hilarious simplicity of the answer almost stops the show. Then there are some great set pieces of music and dance; the Disco Symphony sequence, for instance, is brilliantly staged and the audience raises the roof in response.  The football matches are represented with some fantastic footballography, creating a balletic effect out of the beautiful game. And its impishly sudden ending is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a musical.

HawtreySo it’s a smash-hit, right? Well, no, not quite. I really wanted to love this show from my toes to my fingertips but there were elements that for me let it down. The show wavers between being played very straight and serious in some parts and as pure pantomime in others. The lump-in-the-throat provoking If I Don’t Cry, where Dennis explores his reaction to his mum’s departure, and A House Without a Mum, where the whole family comes to terms with their new status, are full of heartfelt emotion and true humanity. On the other hand, all the scenes with the ebullient shopkeeper Raj, or Darvesh’s outrageous mother, or Mr Hawtrey’s A Life of Discipline number, are pure pantomime, and the balance between the two sometimes feels a little uneasy. Of course, sometimes we have up days, sometimes down, and having a variety of styles reflects that. It’s just that the heartfelt sequences work so well and the pantomime sequences don’t always achieve that.

Darvesh's mum and companyThe story is great, and the tunes are perfectly agreeable. However, some of those lyrics – oh, good Lord. I appreciate that the show is designed to appeal to children – the suggested age for David Walliams’ book is 8- to 12-year-olds. But that doesn’t mean the words have to be dumbed down. For example: the chorus of the Headmaster’s song, I Hate Kids, blandly goes (if I remember rightly), “I hate kids, I hate kids, I really really really hate kids”. Doesn’t give us great character insight, does it? Particularly as in other scenes the headmaster is happy to declaim “Degenerate!” whenever he sees Dennis, which is a rather sophisticated word. Many of the songs throughout the show are sadly littered with inane and uninspired lyrics, and opportunities for more telling words are sacrificed in the quest for a rhyming couplet – learning/learned, turning/turned comes to mind.

RajAnd then there’s the character of Raj. It panders to every Asian shopkeeper racial stereotype under the sun, and I felt sorry for Irvine Iqbal being asked to gurn his way through a sequence of embarrassing musical clichés which wouldn’t have made the first draft of a Goodness Gracious Me sketch. Not giving too much away, I hope, but when he donned his sari I truly wanted to look away. That really didn’t work for me at all. And whilst I enjoyed Natasha Lewis’ performance as Darvesh’s Mum (she does have the best line in the show after all), it seemed clear that the adult Asians are portrayed as outrageous/grotesque figures of fun whilst most of the adult Caucasians are portrayed as ordinary, recognisable human beings. If you want to see lovable Asians on stage without patronising them, can I recommend a revival of the excellent Bend it like Beckham?

Dad with DennisDespite these not insubstantial issues, there’s no doubt that the show is immensely enjoyable, largely down to a fantastic performance from a gifted cast. For press night, the role of Dennis was played by Toby Mocrei, and he was exceptional. Full of authority, a face that conveys innocence, cheekiness, sadness and that wonderful feeling when you get the attention of the most attractive girl in the school, plus the voice of an angel (yes, Messrs Williams and Chambers aren’t the only ones who can use a cliché), the audience as one rose to give him a most deserved standing ovation at the earliest opportunity. Dennis is a dream role for a child actor and Toby was the star of the night. There are four actors playing Dennis, as there are for the role of Darvesh; ours was Ethan Dattani, also full of confidence, plaintively and affectionately reassuring Dennis that his cross-dressing didn’t make a shred of difference to their friendship in a rather emotional little scene. He also very nicely batted away his mother’s embarrassing pitchside kisses.

Jackson Laing as DennisAs one of three actors playing Lisa James, Tabitha Knowles is another supremely confident young performer; her Lisa creates a strong bond with Dennis, whom she proudly displays in the shops and at school as though he were her extravagant new pet. She also has a great singing voice, nice comic timing and a very engaging persona. And Alfie Jukes’ John is a nicely underplayed Neanderthal dumb-nut, who’ll do anything for a Magnum. I hardly recognised Rufus Hound as Dad, an unhappy, down-at-heel man who doesn’t need any further complications in his life and is insufficiently in tune with his feminine side to come close to understanding Dennis’ fondness for dresses – at first. But when he opens his heart and accepts his son, I swear a bit of grit must have got in my eye and I had to activate my tear duct.

CompanyElsewhere there’s an effective pantomime-villain performance from Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey, strictly one-dimensional and played for laughs, and a nicely loopy performance from Charlotte Wakefield as the useless French teacher Miss Windsor. And I loved Ben Thompson’s very human operation of Oddbod, the dog who farts when he gets excited. There’s one lovely moment when he lets one rip and then looks accusingly at the audience as if to ask, “come on, which of you did that?”

I wanted this to be a great show; I guess I’ll have to make do with it being a very good show. But I’m sure it’s going to be a terrific hit with Christmas families and school parties. It’s playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th March 2020, but I’m sure that’s not the last we’ll see of sharp-shooting Dennis and his shimmying gown. And, on press night at least, the evening belonged to young Master Mocrei.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan.

Review – King John, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 26th September 2019

70124559_742892629505514_6444148602838188032_nKing John is one of Shakespeare’s more rarely performed plays, and what a pity that is, because it’s full of fascinating characters, splendid speeches, dramatic gruesomeness and the odd bit of humour. So when the opportunity comes around to share it with a whole new audience, it shouldn’t be wasted. I’ve never sided with the purists when it comes to Shakespeare – he’s big and strong enough to look after himself, and if a production comes along that takes liberties – to the extent that it doesn’t work – then you can always console yourself with the fact that another production will come along soon enough.

Rosie SheehyI must confess though, Eleanor Rhode’s mid-20th century, gender-swapping, vital scene-removing, and altogether flippant production really tested my patience. If it hadn’t been for the excellence of the performances – which were almost universally perfect – and also for the superbly recreated costumes (take a bow Max Johns) – I would have been darn tempted to leave at halftime. To be fair, that would have been an error on my part, as the show considerably calms down after the interval, as the quest to get to the finishing line trims down most of the excesses.

Michael AbubakarThe mood is set with a 60s pop opening soundtrack, and the sight of King John’s very long breakfast table, equipped with two 60s telephones, a posh transistor radio, and a bit of toast. Enter King, in jim-jams and crown, gulping down a hangover cure after what was presumably a heavy night; not that there’s any reason to believe that John was a drinker – we don’t see him touch a drop for the rest of the play. I think it’s an attempt to show that he’s a bit of a lad. A quick moment of comic business follows, with an unanswered phone which – I presume – is to suggest that the King is always in demand. If that’s the case, why don’t phones reappear in the rest of the production? Actually they do; in one moment of appallingly anachronistic and hackneyed comedy, when the papal legate enters the stage and does the internationally recognised “call me” signal to a member of the audience, forgetting that in the sixties we didn’t have mobiles. It’s this kind of inconsistency that reveals how poorly thought through is the whole directorial vision of the production.

King at BreakfastUsually, gender-swapping roles has the benefit of seeing a well-known text through fresh eyes; but when the play is not so well-known, and when so many other liberties have been taken with the original, messing with the gender of the character can cause some confusion. Another confession; in this instance, I found the fact that a man was played by a woman jarred. If it had been a more serious, traditional production, it probably would have worked – but this is a production that errs on the side of the ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong; as King John, Rosie Sheehy is a fine actor with great presence, excellent clarity of diction, and a deft knack of conveying mood swings. But she’s definitely playing King John and not Queen Jean – he’s referred to as a man throughout the play – but Ms Sheehy wears women’s attire – including a stunning gold coronation dress (another bow for the designer). She’s not giving us a male impersonation performance; we’re not watching Vesta Tilley here.

Arthur and Tom McCallSo why a female performer in the role? If the answer is, she was the best person available for the job, then I can understand that. True, it does allow for a moment of dramatic irony where the king cuddles up to Hubert in a semi-sexual way, implying that if he kills Arthur, he/she will make it worth his while; you must decide if that liberty with the script is acceptable or not. Otherwise, it tends to distort the relationships between the characters. Queen Elinor and John, for example, have a power-bond which looks and feels very different between mother and son instead of mother and daughter. Don’t forget this is a tragedy – even though at times it felt more like a pantomime. King John as Principal Boy, Philip the Bastard as Simple Simon and Cardinal Pandulph as the Wicked Witch. For the most part, I couldn’t take it seriously.

The English Court arrivesTake, for instance, those group comedy dance entrances, when the English or the French court appear on stage to a groovy soundtrack and attitudinal dance moves – they reminded me of the finale sequence in that highly successful production of Boeing Boeing about ten years ago; or the boxing scene, which I believe was meant to represent the siege of Angiers, but was much more reminiscent of Monty Python than Shakespeare; I would not have been remotely surprised for the Dauphin to have threatened “I wave my private parts in your general direction”. The food fight at the wedding, though beautifully choreographed, was reminiscent not so much of a ghastly family get-together but more of a comedy routine with Charlie Cairoli and his clowns – 60s pantomime through and through. Best performance by a Pastry Item in a Shakespeare play goes to the bit of cake that ends up in the King of France’s crown.

Wedding DayBut even when they’d cleared away all the jokey excesses of the first two hours, in the height of battle between the English and French forces, they fought…on two revolving trestle tables. I was so distracted by watching the wheels go around, checking to see if they fell off the stage, that I completely forgot to pay attention to the actors. And then – of all scenes to cut – they remove the scene where Arthur dies and is discovered by Pembroke and Salisbury. Instead, the dead Arthur reappears all bloodied and zombie-like a couple of times, presumably as a ghost, and you’re left to your own devices as to how he came a-cropper.

King of FranceThe few moments when the production did soar for me were when the direction took a back seat and the text shone through. The pleading by Hubert (should be the First Citizen, but we’ll let that pass) that Blanche and the Dauphin should marry to end the warring between England and France, and the subsequent reactions by the two forcibly engaged young people was a breath of fresh air. The scene where Hubert is required to murder Arthur, but doesn’t, is electric with tension. But sadly these tremendous moments were few and far between.

Katherine PearceAlong with a great performance by Rosie Sheehy as King John, I was extremely impressed by Michael Abubakar as the cocksure Philip the Bastard, sweet-talking his way into the affections of the crown; Bridgitta Roy as the superior Queen Elinor and a beautifully pitched performance by Tom McCall as the torn Hubert, agonising over the balance of between serving the King and retaining his own humanity. Katherine Pearce went down a storm and was clearly the audience’s favourite as the papal legate Cardinal Pandulph, although whenever I watched her all I could see was Patricia Routledge playing Victoria Wood’s creation Kitty from about 1984.

BoxingI’m not a Shakespeare purist – but there are limits. You can see the threads of a few directorial ideas, but they’re not followed through, and, despite some panache-filled performances, by trying to create a comedy out of a tragedy, it succeeds at neither. This one wasn’t for me. This production continues in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 21 March 2020 and will be broadcast in cinemas on 29th April 2020.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

Review – Measure for Measure, Royal Shakespeare Company, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 4th July 2019

Measure for MeasureOne of the most rewarding aspects about watching Shakespeare in the 21st century is to realise how little has changed. RSC supremo Gregory Doran has set his new version of Measure for Measure in the Vienna of the 1900s, a time and a place of louche decadence, during the final knockings of the Habsburg Empire. The play may have been written over 400 years ago, but it was equally relevant a hundred years ago, and indeed today – particularly with the #metoo generation in mind, where (you could say) the puritan Angelo is just as bad* as your Harvey Weinsteins* of today (*allegedly). (*I didn’t say that).

Duke and AngeloAs an introduction to the plot, in case you don’t know… The Duke of Vienna has had enough of the limelight so leaves the administration of the city in the capable hands of his deupty, Angelo, and his assistant Escalus. Whilst Escalus is a safe pair of hands, and can be expected to mete out justice fairly, Angelo reveals himself to be a puritan fanatic. He unearths old laws that prohibit anything bawdy, and as a result closes all the whorehouses, and sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for having got his fiancé with child. Given that she was a willing participant in the exercise, that’s more than a bit tough. Claudio’s friend Lucio tells the condemned man’s sister Isabella about her brother’s fate, so she attends on Angelo to try to persuade him to change his mind. But Angelo’s price to preserve Claudio’s life is more costly on a personal level than Isabella is prepared to pay… Aha.

Lucio, Claudio and ProvostMeasure for Measure is delightfully uncategorisable; hence its consideration as one of Shakespeare’s three Problem Plays – and probably the most accessible and relatable of those works. Broadly it’s a comedy, but with some very savage aspects, and an ending that doesn’t comply with the usual multi-marriage tie-ups you expect from the genre. It has the bawdiness of the Merry Wives, the clownish policing of Much Ado, the plea for mercy of the Merchant of Venice and the uncompromisingly uncertain final resolution of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It satirises puritanism more sinisterly than Shakespeare’s treatment of Malvolio, and it reveals hypocrisy like the best Molière. It even cheerfully beheads a prisoner whose time hasn’t come yet.

Claudio and IsabellaThe 1900s setting works well enough, with hints of Viennese waltzes, frock coats and painted trollops, although the timelessness of the story and its quiet, understated horror, means you quickly forget about the outward show, and, to be honest, it could be anytime, anyplace. Deep down, it’s all about the powerplay between Angelo and Isabella, and the Duke’s subsequent devious plans to right the wrongs without being castigated for handing over control. The contrast between the Angelo’s clinical brutality and, say, the jokey shenanigans of the pimp Pompey or the foolish constable Elbow, is stark and uncomfortable; but they do very successfully show that it takes all sorts to make a dukedom. Only Lucio bridges the gap between the classes, being both educated and courtly, but also absurd and foppish; whilst he mixes in the high circles of power, and, with apologies for mixing my analogies here, like Icarus he flies too close to the sun.

Escalus, Angelo and JusticeThis is a fine, strong, satisfying production with great performances across the board. Lucy Phelps’ Isabella is a hearty, determined young woman but who won’t allow her moral standards to slip. It’s a great portrayal of a small cog in a big machine, out of her depth when the consequences of her actions become clear. There’s a great scene between Ms Phelps and James Cooney, as the forlorn, clueless Claudio, when he’s uncomprehending as to why she wouldn’t make this sacrifice for him and she’s furious that he should even ask such a thing; two little people lost in a vast, cruel world.

Pompey and FrothSandy Grierson is excellent as the cold, calculating Angelo; looking like a cross between Uriah Heep and Vladimir Putin, and about as trustworthy as both of them, he assumes mock humility at first but is quick to gain ruthless confidence. It’s a measure of the seriousness of his performance that when he cowers on the floor, trembling at the prospect of a night of extorted rapture, that we don’t find it funny, like we would Malvolio. This Angelo allows us the wry smiles of recognising hypocrisy but no more; even when he is condemned to marriage with Mariana, we don’t laugh at his woe. Mr Grierson gives us a superb portrayal of a man who is ugly on the inside; a chancer who spreads misery where he can but is powerless against true authority.

BarnadineClaire Price is fantastic as Escalus, beautifully upright, clear and decisive in her pronouncements; Joseph Arkley imbues Lucio with true upper-crust mischief making; and there are brilliant comic turns from Michael Patrick as the overzealous but under-accurate Elbow, and David Ajao as the wisecracking wide boy Pompey. Great support also from Amanda Harris as the surprisingly kindly Provost, Graeme Brookes as the flustered Mistress Overdone and the bizarrely assertive Barnadine, and Sophie Khan Levy as the much-wronged Mariana.

DukeBut it’s Antony Byrne’s magnificent portrayal of the Duke, with his innate authority at court and his overwhelmingly positive masquerade as Friar Lodowick that knits together all the threads of this superb production, full equally of humour and underplayed horror, and that helps to make this – in my humble opinion – the RSC’s best revival this year so far. Plenty of opportunities to see it, as it’s playing at Stratford until the end of August and then is on tour throughout the country until April, including the Christmas season at the Barbican. An excellent production of this perpetually relevant play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks