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Theatre review: The Changeling (Southwark Playhouse) 
14th-Nov-2011 10:16 pm
After Michael Oakley's JMK Award production of Edward II three years ago I was looking forward to seeing more of the director's work so was excited to see him tackling Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling at Southwark Playhouse (a popular play, it seems; the Young Vic will be giving their own version in a couple of months' time.) Unfortunately though watchable, this shortened version of a classic Jacobean tragedy is far inferior to its predecessor. Beatrice-Joanna (Fiona Hampton) loves Alsemero (Rob Heaps) but is betrothed to Alonzo (James Northcote.) Knowing that the deformed De Flores (David Caves) is in love with her, she bribes him to kill her fiance. But having done so, De Flores doesn't want his payment in cash, and once she's finally married Alsemero, Beatrice-Joanna tries to conceal the fact that she's no longer a virgin.

Oakley's modern-dress production has a number of problematic touches, in fact the programme notes all but apologise in advance for the approach to the many asides the characters make to the audience: They appear instead as pre-recorded voiceovers, the characters' inner thoughts. On one level this just looks a bit naff but it's also a problem as these are intense, big moments as written, confessions to the audience; so it's just not a good fit to have them turned into flat voiceovers, the actors missing out on the chance to really dig into their characters and instead having to stand mutely on stage looking a bit lost. The centrepiece in Fotini Dimou's set is a bank of security screens from which De Flores surveys the house; these are permanently switched on showing a recorded loop of film (video designer Cate Blanchard) which occasionally flicks between different security cameras, distractingly. The fact that they're always-on also makes lighting designer George Bishop's job a thankless one; however hard he tries to dimly light a scared Beatrice-Joanna in a corridor in the middle of the night, the huge wall of bright white light on the other side of the stage kills the mood. Ironically on the couple of occasions when the video screens are used in the story, the actors stand in front of them blocking the view, so the audience has to peer at the smallest screen at the top to try and figure out what they're looking at. Also, for a director with an obvious interest in Jacobethan theatre, Oakley seems reticent to embrace the genre's gleeful approach to sex and violence: Some Kensington Gore does make an appearance at the end, but the earlier murder is curiously, literally bloodless, particularly odd considering it involves a finger being cut off post-mortem. And though I can see why you may think otherwise, I don't think everything needs male nudity to make it better, but a rape scene where not even a belt-buckle gets undone feels way too clinical.

Unfortunately the cast is also a very mixed bag; Caves is believable enough as the obsessive De Flores (and the show's best visual gag is one that's on stage throughout: a couple of weights have been left next to De Flores' desk as an obvious reference to Caves' preposterously huge biceps.) Fiona Hampton is harder to get a handle on, at times she's good but not having seen the play before I was completely confused over whether Beatrice-Joanna is meant to have fallen in love with her rapist or not; she also has a tendency to overact and open her mouth so wide Ian described her as having "Billie Piper mouth." As her father, Jonathan Benda has very much the opposite problem, his atrocious line-readings might have been marginally improved if he'd opened his mouth a bit to let the words come out. As Alsamero, Rob Heaps is pretty (and occasionally topless) and likeable but a bit over-earnest; by the end I was getting distracted by his ever-wobbling bottom lip. Only Sophie Cosson as a randy lady's-maid fully gets into the earthy spirit of Jacobean theatre, and delivers the production's one comic moment in the process.

I've come across very negative here but it's really because there's so many mis-steps along the way; like I say, as a whole the production is watchable enough, really more "meh" than a disaster, it just unfortunately has a long list of big and small things that drag it down that make a review look like more of an attack than it really is. Apart from the exception above, the stripped-down storytelling is very clear. If Oakley can get his casting better for future productions, be more restrained in some areas (gimmicks that add nothing but distraction) and less restrained in others (the genre's joy in its own wickedness) he could be back on track to deliver on the promise he's shown in the past.

The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley is booking until the 26th of November at Southwark Playhouse.
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