‘As You Like It’ at The Wharf Theatre

 

*

I went to the dress rehearsal for the Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’, directed by Liz Sharman, on Sunday.

Described as a pastoral comedy, ‘As You Like It’ is thought to have been written in 1599 and would have been played to an audience of mixed social status and varying degrees of education.  Not being familiar with the play I did some reading before I went, and not for the first time was amazed at the extraordinary level of analysis that has been applied to it over the years.

What if sometimes Shakespeare just wrote stuff for fun?

‘As You Like It’ is a story of lovers and fools, relationships and rivalry, romance and reconciliation.

Duke Senior, having been deposed by his brother Duke Frederick, has set up camp in the Forest of Arden.  Back in the court his daughter Rosalind has fallen in love with Orlando, the son of one of Duke Frederick’s enemies, during a wrestling match arranged by Orlando’s brother Oliver in order to get rid of him.

Asa result of the wrestling match both Rosalind and Orlando are separately cast out of the court.  Rosalind dresses as a man and takes to the forest with Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter, who disguises herself as Rosalind’s sister, and Touchstone, a jester.  Orlando, accompanied by his elderly servant Adam, also takes to the forest, and occupies himself looking for Rosalind and leaving appalling poetry in trees.

Other characters of note are Jacques, a fool/traveller/hermit, shepherds Corin, Silvius and Phoebe, and Audrey, a goatherd, and smaller parts include a vicar, the Spirit of Summer, singers and minor lords.

The set was simple and effective, with a plain white backdrop and flowers, and trees indicated by struts of wood and subtle coloured shadows.  Characters were dressed in a combination of Victorian and present-day dress, and the songs (there are more songs in this than in any other Shakespeare play) were folky and traditional with hey nonny nos and contemporary overtones.

Actors, then; what struck me most was the different ways they handled the complex script.  There are two ways to read Shakespeare, full on theatrical and naturalistic, and both styles were mingled here with good results.  Whilst it was easy to spot the trained actors in this show everyone delivered their lines well and there were very few hiccups.

Helen Langford played a feisty and modern Rosalind (the largest female part in Shakespeare) with admirable principal boy verve and mischief, and Lucy Upward gave a fine performance as her cousin and confidante, Celia.  Lewis Cowen was suitably regal and wise as Duke Senior, and Phil Greenaway (in his first Shakespeare role), and Duncan Delmar played Orlando and Silvius respectively in endearingly hapless and lovelorn fashion.

But it was the fools who stole the show for me.  There’s a lot about foolishness and wisdom in this play, and it is the fools and the folk of the fields who have the best lines.

‘All the world’s a stage’ muses the melancholy and world-weary Jacques, played by Oli Beech with glorious floridity, and ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool’ says Touchstone, played as a charismatic Northern lad by Daz Beatson.

‘As You Like It’ is full of sage advice on love and life, comedy moments, and fine little intricate speeches.  I enjoyed Touchstone’s explanation of the seven causes and Jacques’ performance of the seven ages of man; I laughed at the vicar on the scooter and the phrases ‘country copulatives’ and ‘the horn, the horn, the lusty horn’, at Abigail Newton’s hilarious portrayal of Audrey the clumsy goatherd, at the sheep noises (not sure I was supposed to laugh at that bit), and at Orlando’s terrible poetry; I thought the wrestling was exciting, and the music wistful (credit to Stuart Mayling for his musical and wrestling skills), and I liked the wordplay.

And I looked for the grand themes referred to in my researches on Google.

Echoes of Ecclesiastes, echoes of Arcadia – oh it’s deep enough in places, and the more intellectual types in Shakespeare’s audience would have found plenty to delight them. You could analyse this play till the sheep come home (four centuries of analysis, for goodness’ sake!) but it is predominantly a wild and witty romp, and I think Liz Sharman’s wonderfully lively and watchable production hit exactly the right note.

Shakespeare wrote this for fun, and The Wharf Theatre’s production of ‘As You Like It’ is a fun show.

Shakespeare, fun?  Yes, really!

Well done.

*

© Gail Foster 11th March 2019

(review and photographs)

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The Wharf Theatre presents; ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’

Hahahahaha!

Seriously, though…The Wharf’s production of Sondheim’s first musical, directed by Liz Sharman, is hilarious.  Based on the farces of the Roman playwright, Plautus, it first hit Broadway in 1962.  Don’t expect high art or political correctness.  From the first number, ‘Comedy Tonight’ (‘Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone: a comedy tonight’), it’s clear that this is nothing but a fast-moving, light-hearted, old-fashioned, slightly dodgy, slapstick, pun-filled, fun-fest.

The set is beautifully painted, in authentic colours, with quirky touches.  Three doors, as is traditional with this play.  Not much space for the action, but perfect for the running about, in and out of dusty Roman windows, requirements of the show

It’s the story of how Pseudolus (Jonathon West), a slave of Rome in 200BC, buys his freedom using his knowledge of human nature, the help of hapless fellow slave Hysterium (Chris Underwood), and all other devious means at his disposal.  He lives in the house of Senex (Chris Smith) and Domina (Lesley Scholes), and their son, Hero (Tyler Bartlett), in the same hood as Erronius (John Craig), a befuddled ancient, and Lycus (John Winterton), a lascivious brothel-keeper.  The young Hero has his eye on Philia (Hayley Baxter), a young and as yet unbesmirched courtesan, and agrees that Pseudolus will have his freedom if he can get the twee couple together.  Other characters are the imperious soldier Milos Gloriosus (Nick Swift), various smiley Proteans, and (Good God, is that Miss Whiplash (Jemma Gingell)?) a trio of silent, but enthusiastic, fan wielding prostitutes.

The action gets sillier as the play progresses, and the web of lies that Pseudolus has woven begins to fall apart.  Just a bit of mare’s sweat, and it will all work out.  Maybe if we pretend she’s dead it will be fine.  Maybe if we all dress up as other people that will do the trick.  Not.  Quick song?  Go on, then.

This is a high energy show, with a lot of quick changes and movements.  I can’t fault the choreography, or the superb comic timing, but Sondheim only gets a B for the songs.  ‘Comedy Tonight’ is pretty catchy, and ‘Lovely’ is memorable, although that is partly due to Hayley Baxter (sweet voice, well-played coyness) and Chris Underwood’s interpretations.  Victoria Warren, Musical Director, played the score.  Lot of sharps and flats, apparently.  Difficult keys.

Acting awards?  Lesley Scholes (of course) as the bossy (‘carry my bust with pride’) Roman matron, Hayley Baxter and Tyler Bartlett for doing impossibly cute with straight faces, Jemma Gingell for bravery, Jonathon West for holding it all together, and the entire cast for being on it like a car bonnet whilst appearing to be having the most fun ever.

But it’s the performances of Chris Underwood, John Craig, and Nick Swift, that have me absolutely kissing myself.  The part of the camp and nervous slave Hysterium is the most challenging in the play, and Chris is awesome in the role.  His renditions of the anxiety song ‘I’m Calm’, and ‘Lovely’, are a triumph, and his drag shenanigans are a wonder to behold (clearly a career in modelling beckons).

John Craig plays the part of the doddery, partially sighted Erronius to perfection (John Craig, John Craig, he was witty, he was vague), and Nick Swift, as the arrogant soldier, dominates the stage (in a good way) with his enormous presence, booming voice, and massive wrath.

I haven’t laughed so much or so loudly in public since, well we won’t talk about that.  It was the dress rehearsal, so there was only a small audience, but everyone was in stitches from the outset, and by the end a few of us were incandescent with mirth.  ‘One of the funniest things I have ever seen at The Wharf’ (and he’s seen and been in a few) said Lewis Cowen.  ‘The funniest show I’ve ever been a part of’ (and he’s seen and been in a few too) said Chris Underwood.  I laughed till my stomach hurt, and I’m still laughing now.

When I’d recovered from the wild exhilaration of it all, and had enthused sufficiently, I had a word with Liz Sharman (well done, that woman!) about political correctness.  Liz said that she dealt with the whole prostitute thing by making the male characters seem silly in their dealings with them, and that she didn’t cut anything from the script.  I’d expected the show to be much ruder, and camper, and more along the lines of the (Ooh Matron!) Carry On films.  Undoubtedly some might find the very fact of prostitutes offensive, but apart from a bust, a whip, a fart joke and a few tacky comments, I found the humour quite polite, and the general feel of the whole thing quite…innocent.  Not much to upset your average four-year old, or your Gran.  But then it’s an American show, and I am hardly Mary Whitehouse.

And after all, these things were acceptable in the 60s.  And 70s.  And 200BCs…

I enjoyed this show so much that I’m giving it ten out of ten.

Hahahahaha!

Seriously.

© Gail Foster 28th April 2018