“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.
“The show is something you fall into enjoying, like a warm bath”
Anxiety. Depression. Paranoia. Little could ClodHopper Theatre, the creators of Clown-Hearted, know when devising the piece just how relevant its themes would be in the pandemic-hit atmosphere of late 2020.
Like many current shows, Clown-Hearted is about mental health. The stage is initially set with one down-hearted clown (Leonie Spilsbury) in a highly covetable cloud-patterned onesie, surrounded by scattered boxes representing the various positive and negative pieces of her mental life.
A theatrical exploration of mental health is something that could easily become very dark or clichéd, but this is a work that offers something altogether different. Our clown begins by shuffling the boxes about, making some light gags and setting up a few visual metaphors. The piece takes a little while to fully get into, but soon after the entrance of the second clown (Owen Jenkins) it really gets into its swing.
Asking for help from an omniscient virtual assistant (subtitles are provided), the two clowns take a journey into self-care. The only dialogue coming from either Alexa or Siri is nice ironic contrast to the open simplicity of the characters. Through limited but effective props and their own actions (movement directed by Julia Cave) the clowns experiment with several mood-boosting activities, including exercise, meditation, and exploring nature.
Devised by Spilsbury and Jenkins, the show’s structure may seem a little formulaic, but it works – leading the way into an emotional odyssey that is wonderfully and entirely unpretentious. The performance doesn’t labour over the metaphors set up early on, but instead moves forward into each joyful skit with new energy, ending in a place that is far more wholesome than expected.
The show is something you fall into enjoying, like a warm bath, although there are enough witty and on-trend references from the virtual assistants to make the audience realise the work is clever, too. And of course it is funny, but in a welcoming rather than exclusionary way, with humour everyone can enjoy.
The work of the actors is complemented by the sound and lighting (Will Alder) and most significantly by the musical choices. Many familiar songs feature – from Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’ to ‘Under the Sea’ from The Little Mermaid – and each of these tunes perfectly suits the play’s comforting and uplifting tone. There are also some advantages that come from having had the show filmed, as the camera work (Joseph Ed Thomas and Peter Moreton) gives us some nice close-ups of the actors’ facial expressions that serve to emphasise some of the jokes.
Watching Clown-Hearted is almost an act of self-care in itself; the capers of the clowns are soothing and easy to watch, and there is real warmth brimming out from both of the performers. While you sometimes wonder if some of the clowning would be better if it was more exaggerated, perhaps it is the very easy-going nature of the two characters that makes the show work so well.
In a time when so many of us know what it feels like to struggle with mental health, the play is the perfect pick-me-up and well worth spending the time watching.
Reviewed by Vicky Richards
Online via Applecart Arts until 23rd October
Previously reviewed from Dazed New World Festival 2020: