“Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda”
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Those immortal words the Bard penned in his rustic comedy, As You Like It, seem as true as ever in this recent musical adaptation of the play which makes its European debut. Produced by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in partnership with the National Theatre’s Public Acts, a national initiative to make inclusive, community theatre, it brings a one hundred-strong cast from all walks of life together to create this vibrant version which is unlike any other production of As You Like It you will have seen.
In a condensed telling of Shakespeare’s tale we find Duke Senior (Rohan Reckord) has been banished from the court by his brother Duke Frederick (Curtis Young), finding solace and a new home within the Forest of Arden, where many of his supporters begin to converge and take commune. In paranoid rage, Duke Frederick lashes out at anyone that threatens his authority, including his niece, Rosalind (Ebony Jonelle), who is exiled. Taking on a male disguise, she similarly flees to the Forest of Arden bringing in tow her cousin Celia (Marjorie Agwang), and the trusty clown Touchstone (Vedi Roy). However, before her banishment, Rosalind falls head over heels in love with Orlando (Linford Johnson) whom she must conceal her true emotions from when their paths cross again in the forest.
The original songs that interject this adaptation, help to flesh the characters out further, giving their actions and motives more depth. Composed by American Shaina Taub, she is certainly a name to listen out for in the future. Her witty modern-day lyrics are reminiscent of the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda and help to give a nearly 400-year old story a current relevance.
This may be a community project, but by and large the main characters are played by trained actors. Stand outs include the incredibly watchable Ebony Jonelle who offers a vivacious Rosalind, whilst Vedi Roy as Touchstone delivers the sassiest clown in town. Rohan Reckord has such a smooth voice it will undoubtedly give you goosebumps when he sings.
Nevertheless, it is the amalgamation between the trained actor and the ‘average Joe’ that really is something special, proving that a passion for theatre is what truly wins out and that anybody has a right and the capability to perform on stage. During the colossal group scenes, it is nigh impossible to not feel moved seeing a broad range of people of all ages, abilities, cultures, and backgrounds coming together. The sheer joy that beams from the stage is infectious. The carnival-like atmosphere and colourful costumes (Hayley Grindle and Daisy Blower) make it a party you never want to leave.
“Aitken and Beamish do their very best to bring the story to life
In 2019, over a century after the Great War ended, is there anything left to say about it, you might ask. And I would reply, a fair bit actually – the Irish involvement is still pretty under-told, as is the Indian, African, and Australian. How about the Armenian genocide snuck right in the middle of it all? Don’t hear much about that. And, you know what, now that I think about it, I don’t know much about the Canadian troops either. And unfortunately, after two hours of John Gray’s ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ I still don’t. In fact, the title could easily double as synopsis: Canadian Billy Bishop, a fairly average young man, goes to fight for his King, his motherland, his “home away from home”. And there he learns that war is bad, that taking part in a war can sometimes feel good, and that you never forget how good and bad it all was.
But we know that’s how it’s going to go from the very start, as old-man Billy Bishop (Oliver Beamish) enters with a lurching gait in to his bunker-style man-cave, half-bottles of whiskey, mounted antlers and various WWI paraphernalia all scattered about. He is soon followed by his younger, uniformed self (Charles Aitken) to tell the tale. The whole play sits in that first tableau, and if you’re waiting for a twist in the plot, it’s not coming.
Predictability aside, Beamish and Aitken both make a good go of it. Beamish’s Canadian accent is a little shaky at times, but he more than makes up for it with his other Blackadder-esque British military characters. Aitken’s accent is more consistent but sometimes takes precedent over his delivery. Similarly, he shines in the more comical role of elderly socialite Lady St Helier. Neither man is afraid to take up space, or to throw their physicality behind a variety of parts, each playing at least five or six different characters.
The whole play takes place in Bishop’s hidey-hole, giving a sense of playing even as he sits in a cockpit, shooting at German planes and recounting pilots plummeting to their deaths. In this way, the set (Daisy Blower) supports the music (John Gray) in swiftly backing away from any emotional weightiness – any time Bishop experiences loss or trauma, there’s a song to make it nice and catchy. Wake to find two sleeping corpses in your trench? Let’s sing about it! Incidentally, both actors sing pleasantly enough, and Beamish accompanies nicely on piano.
Director Jimmy Walters has done well with the tools he was given. It’s not ground-breaking, but I don’t see how you could make it so. There are a couple of laughs, a couple of nice songs, and Aitken and Beamish do their very best to bring the story to life. Unfortunately, a century after Billy Bishop went to war, we require more than an old boys’ club patting each other on the back, saying, with only a smidgeon of solemnity, ‘It really was a great war.’