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Theatre review: The Comedy of Errors (Propeller at Hampstead Theatre) 
5th-Jul-2011 10:56 pm
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It's a good job Antipholus of Syracuse and Helena of Athens inhabit different Shakespeare plays¹ because they're both so thick if they ever met and bred the offspring would have been so stupid it would have set evolution back centuries. Observe, a man who goes off on his travels for the express purpose of finding his identical twin brother; and who, on arrival in Ephesus appears to be constantly mistaken for someone else and at no point thinks to connect the two things. It also starts with a Basil Exposition epic to rival The Tempest so for various reasons you can see why it isn't the most highly-regarded of Shakespeare's comedies; but I'm rather fond of The Comedy of Errors because it's so incredibly silly, given the right treatment it can be very funny. Just as well, as along with the aforementioned Midsummer Night's Dream it looks likely to be the equal winner of most productions of the same play I see this year, with a small-scale production a few months back and the National planning one for Christmas. In between comes Propeller, Edward Hall's all-male touring Shakespeare company. Having also become Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre it seems inevitable that the two would meet, Propeller's 2011 season becoming the first one to make it to London.

If you follow roughly the same people as me on Twitter you'll have heard an insane amount of praise of these shows so it was hard for me to try and go into this with an open mind; inevitably the show was a bit disappointing, as anything less than the Second Coming would be. And it's fair to say that despite the cast's energy it takes a while to actually get funny, although that's largely the play's fault. The shortest of Shakespeare's plays, each half of this production comes in at about an hour, and it's probably 40 minutes into the first half that it really warms up. This is partly thanks to how the Syracuse pairing of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart (Antipholus) and Richard Frame (Dromio) perform their repartee in the style of a music-hall act. But the real saviour of the first part is David Newman's ninja Luciana, the perfect example of how using a man's physicality while playing a woman can be hilarious without it being about laughing at the man in a frock.

After the interval (during which the cast arrive in the bar to sing an '80s medley - designer Michael Pavelka has nominally set the action among British tourists in Spain) things really pick up all round. This time the Ephesus pairing get a bit more to do with Jon Trenchard as Dromio and a big favourite round these parts, Sam Swainsbury (whom I saw first, Ian) as the other Antipholus, earning a spontaneous round of applause for one speech in a role that sometimes gets overlooked but here really comes into its own. He's got stiff competition in the totty stakes from Dominic Tighe though, who somehow makes a Village People-style ensemble look hot, and whose police officer ends up being a much larger role than it's meant to be, helped in part by some additional bits of dialogue, Hall clearly not being afraid to mess around with the text (presumably his father's disowned him for this, if he hadn't already for using lots of slapstick rather than having his characters recite their lines slowly out to the audience while shaking their heads mournfully. NEVER FORGET!) On more than one occasion Swainsbury and Tighe end up in suggestive positions so that's me happy. Elsewhere Robert Hands' Adriana, Kelsey Brookfield's Courtesan, Tony Bell's American preacher of a Pinch and Chris Myles' Mother Superior in fishnets are memorable. Once it's got going, this is as good a production of The Comedy of Errors as you're likely to see. (But it's not the Second Coming.)

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare is in repertory until the 9th of July at Hampstead Theatre (returns only) and continues on tour.

¹it also helps that they're both fictional
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