Famously, little is known of Shakespeare the man, although we actually know more about him than other playwrights of the time. The gaps in our knowledge are taken as an open invitation to screenwriters, novelists, and everyone else to invent whatever they like to make their own version of him. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman chose to straightwash the bard in their screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1998 film – Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day is widely recognised as having been written for a man. The screenplay takes plot points from Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night, with the idea that these life events inspired the plays, when in truth Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of pre-existing stories. Not that this matters if we take this version at face value. Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the screenplay holds true to the spirit of the film, and there’s a lot of fun to be had recognising versions of famous quotes. Even if you’re not well-versed (ha) in the Works, there is much to enjoy in this historical rom-com.
What strikes you first off in this sumptuous production is the set, which evokes the Globe Theatre and serves well for other locations. Milling around pre-show the cast give us previews of their costumes. As ever the costume department at the Crescent goes all out. This is a fabulous-looking show; Rosemary Snape and her team should be commended.
Oliver Jones is a handsome and endearing Will Shakespeare, managing to be both cerebral and bumbling. Alisdair Hunt makes an impression as his rival-mentor-friend Kit Marlowe. The notion that Marlowe fed Will some of his best lines under a balcony is more akin to Cyrano de Bergerac!
Bethany Gilbert absolutely shines as Viola de Lesseps who disguises herself as a boy in order to secure a role on the stage. Her delivery of the verse is second-to-none, although the play misses the opportunity to make the most of Will’s apparent attraction to someone of the same sex, as in Twelfth Night, say.
The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis is, have a guess, excellent as ever in his portrayal of harried theatre manager Henslowe, with superb timing and a performance that is just the right side of Carry On. The mighty James David Knapp absolutely storms it as the larger-than-life actor Ned Alleyn, while Joe Palmer is suitably entitled and horrible as villain of the piece, Wessex.
Also great are Mark Thompson as the bullish financier Fennyman who taps into his artistic side when he lands the role of the apothecary; Phil Rea as a deliciously bombastic Burbage; and Pat Dixon-Dale as Viola’s long-suffering Nurse. Jaz Davison’s imperious Queen Elizabeth is not without nuance.
There are many pleasing moments from supporting players: Charles Hubbard as boy-actor Sam; Dylan Guiney-Bailey as a bloodthirsty Webster; Niall Higgins as the Nurse within the play; Simon King as a riverboat cabbie…
A taut consort of musicians and vocalists provide period music to underscore the action and to cover transitions, and it all sounds perfectly lovely under Gary Spruce’s musical direction. There are a few moments when the music almost drowns the dialogue – luckily Mark Thompson is often around to tell them to shut up!
Director Michael Barry keeps the action well-focussed on an often busy stage – the period choreography is charming and doesn’t get in the way of the action. Keith Harris’s gorgeous set is backed by beautiful scenic projections, with Kaz Luckins’s fight direction adding authenticity as well as excitement.
A fine and funny fabrication that demonstrates the high quality production values on which the Crescent prides itself. All in all, an evening of excellent entertainment.
A young man is murdered in a senseless assault outside a shop. The murderer is a young girl off her head on drugs. This is the event that triggers what follows in Shelagh Stephenson’s powerful piece about grief and coming to terms with sudden and inexplicable tragedy.
Director Jaz Davison stages the murder before curtain up, in the theatre bar. It’s a shocking outburst but we, the audience, don’t know how to react. We shuffle off to the studio space to take our seats.
When the play begins properly, we meet the dead boy’s family: his parents and his older brother Joe. Through a series of monologues they tell their sides. What comes across is honesty – Stephenson’s writing is top notch.
Professionally dispassionate Elizabeth (Danielle Spittle) is brought in by mum Mary to try to help make sense of the senseless. Spittle is quite a contrast to the raw emotional truth of the others, and necessarily so, so it takes longer to appreciate her performance. The others are immediately gripping: Harry Clarke as the surviving son is intense; Roger Saunders as John, the dad, is utterly credible, first escaping into running and later into the bottle. But it is Joanne Hill as Mary who is utterly heart-breaking as she goes through a range of reactions in her bid to come to terms with this most terrible event.
Grace Hussey-Burd is also excellent as the damaged, twitchy Emma, the killer, unable or unwilling to articulate her motives, displacing her aggression in rants about confectionery and, of all things, olives.
Throughout the play, dead boy Dan is a constant, wordless presence, watching and waiting for his family to be able to let him go – Liam Cobb gives a haunting performance indeed!
Elizabeth works to bring Mary and Emma together – it is by no means plain sailing or what a meeting between murderer and victim’s mother might achieve, and this is what makes the drama so gripping. Stephenson’s writing is scalpel-sharp and bitterly humorous, and served extremely well by this engrossing and emotionally truthful production. Another high quality and thought-provoking piece from the Crescent.
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th October, 2013
Somerset Maugham’s 1926 comedy is brought to sparkling life in Jaz Davison’s lively production. It tells the story of Constance, the titular wife, whose husband has been having a long-standing affair with one of her best friends. Everyone around Constance strives to hide the ugly truth from her but, it turns out, she has known all along. Constance is nobody’s fool. Red faces all around. But it is what happens next that takes this comedy of manners into Ibsen territory. More assured than Ibsen’s Nora, Maugham’s Constance not only turns the tables on her unfaithful spouse but carves out a niche for herself, claiming that the economic independence she has earned for herself is the key to opening up the rest of her life. She is no more bound to her husband by financial need than she is to convention and, some might say, propriety.
It’s a great-looking production, played in-the-round in the theatre’s Ron Barber Studio with a detailed but unfussy set designed by James Rowland, and a parade of 1920s fashions from costume designer Stewart Snape. The women are especially well-dressed with fur stoles draped over their shoulders like roadkill – reminders that the play has become a period piece, and that some aspects of society have changed considerably since it first opened.
As Constance, Liz Plumpton cuts an elegant figure. At first she is a little too imperious and not playful enough but she warms up and becomes delightful, her delivery matching the wit of her dialogue. The characters fire off Widean epigrams like champagne corks – some of the cast handle this mannered way of speaking with great ease. Particularly impressive is Jo Hill as Barbara, and Danielle Spittle’s Martha improves as the action unfolds. Plumpton is ably supported by Roger Saunders as old suitor Bernard and Kate Campbell as treacherous Marie-Louise, but it is her moments with husband John that really stand out. Colin Simmonds’s performance is a delight from start to finish as the smarmy philanderer in a beautifully detailed and executed characterisation. And very, very funny.
Jaz Davison’s direction has some stylish touches (like the use of butler James Smith for the transitions) but a little lighter handling of the earlier moments would get the performance fizzing along from the get-go. It’s a soufflé on which the oven door has been opened too soon, but the cast rally and aerate the confection as soon as they settle in. From that point on The Constant Wife becomes consistently funny.