MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Jack Studio Theatre
“Musical interludes are nicely performed with some strong vocals”
Outdoor specialists Bear in the Air Productions bring their summer production inside to the intimacy of the Jack Studio Theatre. Pared down to just six players by Director Heather Simpkin and with a running time of less than two hours, it’s a merry romp through Shakespeare’s popular comedy. But it doesn’t transfer inside well: the space is cramped compared to the great outdoors and, after a long and hot summer season, the ensemble appears tired. Simpkin’s adaptation works well though. With some major cuts to the text, and important lines reassigned to different characters, the plot rolls through apace. This does though leave little space for characters to breathe or for us to see gradual changes in their development. This is particularly a loss when it comes to the all-important exchanges between our heroes Beatrice and Benedick.
The entire cast is almost ever-present on stage, often taking seats at the back when not directly involved in the action. Hannah Eggleton (Beatrice) has a huge presence here, actively listening to the goings-on and reacting accordingly. There’s many a smile, nod and knowing look towards the audience, perhaps more than necessary in this space. She is at her most convincing when defending the wronged Hero and her demand to ‘kill Claudio’ is chillingly done. Ross Telfer (Benedick), with an Errol Flynn moustache and wispy facial hair, plays the seasoned bachelor closer to ‘less than a man’ than expected and is more foolish than erudite.
In a rather nice doubling, these two actors also appear as the bumbling members of the Watch under the leadership of Chief Scout Dogberry (Conor Cook). In a notoriously difficult role Cook plays the troubled character as more quirky than tragic. He also doubles in the roles of Friar – nicely done – and the villain Don John. A black beret and dark sunshades provide the visual clues of John’s inherent nastiness but we would benefit from seeing him as more overtly wicked.
Megan King (Hero & Borachio) is both the innocent blushing beauty – played suitably coyly – and the servant responsible for acting out the charade that leads to Hero’s disgrace. The latter role, dressed in flat cap and Barbour jacket, requires a more masculine or conniving approach. Toby George-Waters (Claudio) gives the performance of the night as Hero’s would-be wooer and then accuser. His initial boyish enthusiasm to seeing a pretty girl contrasts well with his later despair and George-Waters is convincing throughout.
Much of the work of holding this condensed adaption together falls upon the reliable Charles Stobert (Don Pedro). In the central scene of the evening, Pedro and Claudio create the opportunity for mayhem with a traditional moving garden trellis scene in which to trick Benedick and a more ambitious hiding beneath a picnic rug scene for Beatrice. In a production that is generally rather static, these scenes stand out for their stagecraft, well-executed.
Musical interludes are nicely performed with some strong vocals, especially from Stobert, and decent harmonies. The song of the night, Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ (reprising its use as a dance floor filler in the film Pulp Fiction) is a surprisingly relevant inclusion. Well sung, but dancing could do with improvement!
Brevity is at the soul of this production. It isn’t an especially deep reading of the play – there isn’t the time – but the adaptation for just six players works well. Better seen outside though, where it belongs, on a warm summer’s evening.
Reviewed on 25th August 2022
by Phillip Money
Photography courtesy Bear In The Air Productions
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Maltings Theatre
Reviewed – 29th October 2021
“As a period piece, both of the time it is set, and the time in which it was created, Vinegar Tom is a haunting piece of theatre”
Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, just opened at the Maltings Theatre in St. Albans, marks the 45th anniversary of the play’s premiere by the feminist theatre collective, Monstrous Regiment. Written at the same time as Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Vinegar Tom explores similar subjects set in an England coming apart at the seams during the Civil War. Both plays present political (and polemical) material which resonates just as powerfully today, but Vinegar Tom is the more overtly feminist piece. It also incorporates music hall touches well suited to the style of a 1970s touring company like Monstrous Regiment, but which, ironically, date a show for twenty first century audiences no longer familiar with the music hall tradition.
Vinegar Tom is not about witches, as Churchill herself says. Instead she aimed to write a play for Monstrous Regiment that highlighted the plight of women living on the fringes of society. Her play is also about how unique, nonconformist women end up on those fringes (both then and now). With no means of visible support, and vulnerable as spinsters or widows, such women initially struggle as objects of suspicion among their neighbours. Ultimately, they become victims of a paranoid age looking for scapegoats. Despite the disclaimer, Churchill creates a compelling and believable narrative for the origins of witch hunts in seventeenth century England.
The Maltings Theatre revival of Vinegar Tom, directed by Matthew Parker, is a bold attempt to place the themes of the play front and centre. On a barely there set, designed by Sorcha Corcoran, Parker has assembled a talented cast (with particularly spirited performances by Emilia Harrild and Melissa Shirley Rose). The set is complemented by Alice McNicholas’ beautiful costumes. The music (composed by Maria Haïk Escudero) introduces a rock element to the show. This update is a departure from the more folk influenced music created for the original production by Monstrous Regiment. This revival features instead, cast members in period influenced costume picking up electric instruments for the songs that punctuate each scene’s end. These musical moments are arresting visuals, and certainly introduce a more “ominous” vibe. But the overall effect overwhelms Churchill’s dialogue, and the shape of the original play. The lighter, more comic (and teachable) moments recede.
In all Churchill’s plays, it’s the words you listen for. And in Vinegar Tom (the play takes its name from the cat of one of the characters) the lyrics are as powerful as the scenes that precede them. Each scene in is a punch in the gut about women’s treatment in the seventeenth century (and by extension, our own). Escudero’s music is potent, drawing on many rock influences, and the performers who play it, are more than up to the task. Ultimately, however, the power of the musical element is just too much for the play—and the space. The Maltings is an intimate black box theatre well suited to the original, touring, production of Vinegar Tom—but in this 2021 update, the intimacy, and hence the impact of each scene as the actors play it, gets lost. It’s not impossible to reimagine Vinegar Tom as a rock musical, but it would be a different beast.
As a period piece, both of the time it is set, and the time in which it was created, Vinegar Tom is a haunting piece of theatre. It stands as testament to the quality of the work produced by 60s and 70s feminist theatre collectives. So do make the trip to St. Albans if you have never seen this play before—it’s vintage Churchill, and a timely revival.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Pavel Gonevski
The Maltings Theatre
Other shows recently reviewed by Dominica: