Tag Archives: Propeller

Dream A Little Dream


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 4th February, 2016


This production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the ever-excellent Propeller company is stripped down to a running time of just over an hour – the cast is also stripped down to their long johns, to which they add a cloak here or a hat there to enable them to double up on roles.

Robin Goodfellow aka Puck (aka Tam Williams) narrates, providing a nifty spot of exposition to cover scenes that have been mercilessly excised from the text. Gone are Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta. Gone too is Hermia’s father, taking with him the darker, more dramatic aspects of the story. Here, director Edward Hall and his co-adapter Roger Warren focus on the entanglements of the romantic comedy, along with the broader slapstick of the ‘rude mechanicals’. It all tears along at breakneck speed and is as slick as it is funny. Which is extremely.

The cast provide their own sound effects and backing music as they hurtle through the plot. Chris Myles is an imperious fairy king Oberon and a bombastic bully Bottom, a ham actor who, had there been any scenery, would have chewed it. Antony Jardine is a dashing Demetrius (well, there’s a lot of dashing around by everyone!) and an affable Peter Quince. Max Hutchinson’s coolly feminine Titania contrasts with his tightly-wound Helena, while Matthew McPherson’s Hermia rants and raves with an abundance of physical exertion. Oliver Wilson’s Snout is a groovy mover, as opposed to his hot-headed and more courtly Lysander. It is Tam Williams’s Robin/Puck that holds the thing together, charming in his tutu and playing a mean trombone.

The comic business is tightly choreographed and cartoonish in places. The attention to detail and the handling of pacing are delightful to behold. The text is clearly delivered, with Shakespeare’s rhyming couplets heightening the fantastic elements of events. The Pyramus and Thisbe performance, which I maintain is the funniest scene in all Shakespeare, is hilariously chaotic. Without the heckling of Duke Theseus and his courtiers, its silliness rattles along uninterrupted.

Aimed at young audiences, this Dream is an engaging, enjoyable, exhausting if not exhaustive introduction to the play, and to Shakespeare. If the reaction of audience members of every age is anything to go by, Propeller delivers a cracking night out for one and all.



A dream of a Dream


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 4th June, 2014


Propeller’s first visit to Birmingham brings a double bill of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and, the show I saw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, giving the people of our second city the chance to see this all-male troupe bring their inventive and accessible takes on classic plays. Edward Hall is surely the most reliable director of Shakespeare – I have yet to see one of his takes on Will’s plays that I didn’t enjoy or admire. Here, he dresses his cast as street performers, pallid clowns or saltimbanques. They don bits of costume to identify them as main characters or otherwise blend into the chorus, flitting and running around in a swarm of activity. The aesthetic never obscures the action and the verse is spoken with clarity and emotion – I defy anyone to fail to be charmed and transported by the production. It’s also very funny.

Matthew McPherson is a pouting, petulant Hermia (and also doubles as Snug the Joiner) contrasting splendidly with Dan Wheeler’s taller and heartfelt Helena. There is a fantastically funny brawl between these two, helped and hindered by their bewitched boyfriends, Demetrius (Arthur Wilson) and Lysander (Richard Pepper). This scene was the comic highlight of the evening for me, outshining the Pyramus & Thisbe interlude, which I feel is a little too manic and overdone – However there is much to enjoy in Chris Myles’s Bottom. James Tucker is an elegant and haughty ‘proud Titania’ and Will Featherstone rounds out his Hippolyta, making her a character rather than an ornament for Theseus (an excellent Dominic Gerrard). The female roles are never impersonations or drag acts; the actors evoke femininity with gestures and attitude, while keeping their maleness apparent.

Joseph Chance is a merry, balletic puck in striped red and white tights and frilly tutu, while Darrell Brockis’s Oberon is the master magician in sparkling cloak, while David Acton’s impassioned Egeus memorably establishes the conflict that triggers the rest of the plot.

It’s a prouction that uses theatricality to bring out the magical aspects of the story, but the tricks and gimmicks are all in service of the script, proving yet again that Propeller is the go-to company for intelligent, effective interpretations that actually work as entertainment.



A Little Touch of Harry in the Night

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 2nd May, 2012

The mighty Propeller theatre company’s The Winter’s Tale delighted and entertained me a few months ago and so I was really looking forward to seeing the other half of their currently touring double bill.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The cast forms a company of soldiers, a band of brothers. Through the “O, for a muse of fire!” opening speech, they take it in turns to appeal to our imaginations to provide all the scenery, cast of thousands and special effects they are unable to bring onto the stage. From the get-go, Shakespeare’s brilliance gets to work. This speech is full of false modesty but it is also a direct lesson in how Narrative Theatre works. The play is crammed with familiar lines but to appreciate the full power of the language you have to hear the rhetoric in context.

Director Edward Hall gives Shakespeare room to work on us. This is a war story showing not just the high and mighty, but also the common men from all walks of life. The clever use of The Clash’s London Calling during one of the transitions brings this to the fore. Actors double and treble up on characters and are chorus to each other’s history, hardly ever leaving the stage. They are a tight and talented ensemble. Humour, Shakespeare’s and Hall’s, counterpoints the darker scenes. The Dauphin (Gunnar Cauthery) gives us a quick burst of the theme from ‘Allo, ‘Allo! on the accordion to play the French King onto the stage. As French Princess Katherine, Karl Davies (it’s an all-male company) is hilarious without being outré. Contrast this with his earlier experience as the traitor Lord Scroop and you have a prime example of what this production does best. Light and dark are each thrown into sharp relief.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry is more effective in the dramatic scenes than the comic ones, giving the men that most famous of pep talks or expressing his heartbreak over the treachery of his closest friends. Henry is Shakespeare’s ideal leader – defeating the enemy, “down” with the common folk and he gets the girl. The only thing he doesn’t do is croon like Barack Obama.

I also particularly liked Chris Myles as Katherine’s gentlewoman/chaperone but it’s unfair to single out performances from this happy few.

The play ends with the marriage of Henry to Katherine, uniting England to old enemy France. But this is a surprisingly downbeat moment. In silence, Henry hands the kneeling Katherine his crown and walks away. It is as though all he has fought for is surrendered. This has resonances with Europe today. We won the war (in case you were unaware!) but we are perhaps in danger of yielding too much power to our continental neighbours. Recent announcements of the sharing of defences between England and France would surely rankle with this King Henry.

A rousing and entertaining production, funny, vibrant and affecting, that proves yet again that Propeller is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to staging Shakespeare today. Edward Hall is a ruddy genius.

A Play of Two Halves

Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, Thursday 26th January, 2012

Propeller, an all-male Shakespearean company, present their take on one of old Will’s later plays and give us a very rewarding evening of theatre. The Winter’s Tale, one of my favourites, is like a fairytale without magic. It tells of Kings and Queens of faraway places – there is also much of Greek tragedy and myth here. Leontes’s fatal flaw, his rampant jealousy, sets in motion a chain of events that strips him of his loved ones and, through the fulfilment of prophecy, restores them to him.

The first half is very dark. The stark opulence (if you’ll allow the oxymoron) of Leontes’s palace – silvery walls and candlelight, a largely bare stage – is populated with courtiers in sharp suits and the ghostly figure of a boy in pyjamas, the doomed prince Mamillius. Mamillius oversees most of the action; he is almost Greek god-like in that he uses his toy figures as representations of the main characters. A model ship represents the journey across the sea. A teddy bear – no, I’ll come back to the teddy bear.

The female characters, in the first act, are created through the effective use of gesture and feminine mannerisms. We see Vince Leigh’s Paulina as the strong woman she is; Richard Dempsey’s Hermione is vulnerable, resolute and charming. Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, the actors were and always had been male. Propeller continues this convention and so good are the characterisations you don’t even consider the lack of equal opportunities!

As jealous king Leontes, Robert Hands dominates the first half, talking himself into believing his wife’s imagined infidelity, taking rash action against her before crumbling beneath the weight of the tragedy he has brought upon himself. It is a towering yet layered performance.

But this is a play of two halves. The contrast between the end of the first and the beginning of the second could not be greater. The shepherd’s sheep-shearing celebrations are a kind of mini-Glastonbury festival, with resident band “The Bleatles” and a flock of performing sheep. It is a loud and brash affair with music ranging from the Rolling Stones through to Donna Summer and a marvellous rendition of Beyonce’s Single Ladies with Shakespearean lyrics. It is a truly delightful moment – here the female characters are garish and bewigged but nonetheless beautifully observed.

This rural idyll is soon disrupted by the arrival of the king of Bohemia, disguised as a scout leader. He sets in motion the chain of events that will bring about resolution and restoration. The jeopardy of the main characters is tempered by the antics of the comical ones: the pickpocket and conman Autolycus (a rousing Tony Bell – think Harry H Corbett does Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison) and Karl Davies (formerly Robert Sugden off of Emmerdale) revisiting his agricultural roots as the Young Shepherd. It is as though Shakespeare acknowledges the machinations of the tragic aspects of the story, far-fetched as they are, require ameliorating with some more palatable and down-to-earth mucking about. It’s a mash-up of styles that works brilliantly.

Even so, the conclusion, with the “statue” of the supposedly deceased Hermione coming to life and embracing her husband and her long-lost daughter is still a moving moment and you leave the theatre satisfied with a story well told.

My only disappointment with this superb production was the handling of the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare. It is always a much anticipated moment, Exit – pursued by a bear. Here, although foreshadowed by Mamillius cavorting around with a bearskin rug, we are shown a doll being smashed into by a teddy bear. It fits director Edward Hall’s concept of the production but I wanted something bigger and more surprising. I wanted to see a bear, damn it. It was a fleeting disappointment soon dismissed by my admiration and appreciation of this excellent company.