“the verse reading of Michael Pennington in this space is inspiring”
How can a venue as intimate as the Jermyn Street Theatre manage a production of The Tempest? Director Tom Littler pulls it off with an ensemble of just eight players and the mighty Michael Pennington as Prospero. The set (Set & Costume Design by Neil Irish & Anett Black) hints at a desert island existence: bits of boat, an oar, sheeting that could be old sail, seashells. Wavy shelves line the walls, Prospero’s all-important books lying this way and that. An island soundscape pervades the space (Composer & Sound Design by Max Pappenheim), waves roll along the beach, exotic birds tweet.
Prospero, using a model boat as an aid, conjures up a storm and we see a group of mariners behind a gauze fearing for their lives. Pennington possesses a calm authority which emphasises the frailty of the enchanter. The honey tone of his speaking voice is pleasing to the ear but, with book in hand throughout, he is limited in his movement. Communication with the audience is not as intense as it could be in this miniature space but when he does glance up with a whimsical smile and a twinkle in his eyes, we see a master actor at work.
The success of this production lies with the superlative actors’ skills in doubling roles. Richard Derrington and Peter Bramhill have two double acts. Firstly, as Antonio and Sebastian, in silk dressing gowns, they are snide and condescending towards the King’s advisor Gonzalo (Lynn Farleigh) and then menacingly circle the sleeping King (Jim Findley), knives in hands, plotting murder. Some moments later and they are back as Stephano in a thermal onesie, and Trinculo in tails and bowler hat – the comic relief, breaking the fourth wall with their drunken jests. Tam Williams has no easy task doubling Caliban – half naked, bruised and scarred, a cowl covering his head, at his best when whispering the pathos of the creature – and a rather wet-behind-the-ears Prince Ferdinand in striped pyjamas.
Whitney Kehinde’s Ariel holds everything together. Harnessing her inner Puck, she weaves around the stage, arms whirling. Two of her songs stand out – Full Fathom Five and Where the Bee Sucks – in which the verse becomes part of her magical incantation emphasised by haunting electronic effects.
Rachel Pickup’s Miranda lights up the stage. Her love-at-first-sight scene is delightful although this Ferdinand is less convincing in showing that the attraction is mutual. And Miranda’s wide-eyed amazement at seeing more humans for the first time drew many smiles behind the masks of this audience.
This is an effective but low-key Tempest. Prospero’s valedictory speech in which he intends to break his staff and drown his book is deliberately underplayed and the Gauguin-inspired wedding masque does not convince. But the verse reading of Michael Pennington in this space is inspiring. The Jermyn Street Theatre’s auditorium, in which you can hear every nuance of every word, is as much the star of the show as the actors upon the stage.
Online via Jermyn Street Theatre and Guildford Shakespeare Company
Reviewed – 19th December 2020
“The spirit of Christmas present may have taken a holiday this year, and while this show doesn’t quite lure it back, it does remind us of our Christmases past”
On the day that Christmas was effectively cancelled, it is perhaps a natural reaction to want to seek refuge in some sort of seasonal escapism. ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ or ‘Bad Santa’. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is another annual favourite. Something comfortingly familiar and predictable. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” fits the bill perfectly. Written during a time when the British were re-evaluating themselves, its themes of transformation and redemption inspired, if not created, the aspects of Christmas we have grown to love; including family gatherings, festive food and drink, games and a communal generosity of spirit.
In the absence of that, the Guildford Shakespeare Company with Jermyn Street Theatre, are beaming their live, staged version of the story via Zoom, which allows a degree of audience participation. The technology, born of necessity back in March, still feels a little underdeveloped, but it does let the curtain rise on productions that would otherwise remain locked away in the dark.
Naylah Ahmed’s faithful adaptation pulls no surprises. We all know the story, which is its selling point, along with the two names in the cast – Penelope Keith and Brian Blessed who play the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present respectively. Keith displays her signature imperious disdain for the unreformed Scrooge with a deadpan, but slightly apologetic, sense of humour (“I am not a sir, sir!”), while Blessed’s distinctly unapologetic performance plays up to his own caricature. They are both a formidable and colourful presence. Jim Findley, as Ebenezer Scrooge, fails to react accordingly, and doesn’t seem to be too distraught that his night is disturbed by these uninvited and foreboding spirits.
Rallying round, though, are the three multi-rolling cast members who pick up the remaining characters. Robin Morrissey’s versatility leapfrogs from his Jacob Marley to Bob Cratchitt to Mr Fezziwig with ease, accompanied by the sparkly eyed Paula James as Mrs Cratchitt, Fezziwig and others. Paula James, along with Lucy Pearson, who has her own hamper full of characters, bring a lightness of touch to what is a fairly stolid and dependable narration.
Despite the commitment of the cast, they seem unsure as to who the audience is. Director Natasha Rickman seems to be steering them, perhaps against their will, towards a younger crowd. The sense of enjoyment is prevalent but at the expense of the magic and awe that this tale should inspire. The show features children from the Guildford Shakespeare Company’s drama clubs, in rotation, as the Cratchitt children, and it is a delight to see the relish with which the three young ensemble cast dive into their roles.
The spirit of Christmas present may have taken a holiday this year, and while this show doesn’t quite lure it back, it does remind us of our Christmases past and give us hope for those yet to come. But we want to toast the future with effervescence and this ‘Christmas Carol’ doesn’t have the sparkling warmth to uplift us fully. But ‘Humbug’ to that. The run is already sold out online so don’t listen to this old Scrooge.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Ciaran Walsh
A Christmas Carol
Online via Jermyn Street Theatre and Guildford Shakespeare Company until 27th December