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posted/updated: 21 Apr 2012 -
Baba Shakespeare
Emmeline Winterbotham, suggested by the 1965 Merchant Ivory Film, Shakespeare Wallah.
society/company: Tower Theatre Company (directory)
performance date: 18 Apr 2012
venue: Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)

The hugely successful RSC Open Stages project has served up all manner of theatrical delights for audiences up and down the UK. While some societies have opted for the safety of purist-based Bard masterpieces, others have seized the opportunity to let their imaginations run wild. Such is the RSC's broad remit - "RSC Open Stages is open to any amateur or community group to take part in", as long as nobody running or leading a group is being paid, anything goes really - as long as the production is Shakespeare or Shakespeare-themed, of course.
Tower Theatre Company is one of London's (and probably the UK's) foremost societies continually producing the kind of theatre that ever-threatens to merge the line between amateur and fringe/professional theatre. When it came to the RSC Open Stages project, not surprisingly, the company decided to think well outside of the box. The result: Baba Shakespeare, a brand-new production written and directed by Tower's Emmeline Winterbotham and inspired by the 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah.

Baba Shakespeare gives its audience an exotic slice of India's history during the transitional and post-independence years of the early 1960s. With glimpses into the golden era of Bollywood, the focus centres on the latter years of the Buckingham family's once-thriving touring Shakespearian theatre company. Although - as in Shakespeare Wallah - the characters are essentially fictitious, the idea is based on the real-life 50s/60s theatre troupe 'Shakespeareana' run by Geoffrey Kendal and his family - including the services of one very young daughter called Felicity.

As a venue, London's Arcola Tent was an inspired choice by Tower, giving the production a very makeshift and touring atmosphere; the Arcola Tent really is a 'big-top' tent, complete with an in-the-round performance space and wooden-bench seating. However, this is still London, not India, and the night I attended was not only freezing but had the added prize of pouring rain. It's testament to the superb imagination of Tower's creative team that, despite the British weather trying its hardest to upset proceedings, the audience couldn't help but immerse itself in the searing heat under a scorching Indian sun. Hats and indeed turbans off to Chris Davies' original authentic musical compositions and Catherine Morgan's design for realising their director's vision.

This was a production full of atmosphere transforming rainy London into 1960s India. With sublime attention to detail an absolute masterstroke of this piece was the thoroughly accurate choreography (and costumes) employed during several dance routines throughout the evening. Renowned choreographer and dancer, Shobna Gulati's (Coronation Street's Sunita Alahan to millions up and down the country) collaboration with Tower on this production was a joy to watch. As was the extraordinary Act I scene involving the brilliant Anaish Parmar as 'Monkey Wallah' and a pair of performing monkeys - involving some lovely and hilarious puppetry (with specially-made puppets) from Catherine Thomas and Emma Reade-Davies which even interacted with various members of the audience.

Ian Recordon (see also The Dresser) and Simona Hughes were nicely cast as the well-travelled Anthony and Carla Buckingham, and looked every bit the product of a couple that not only lived and breathed Shakespeare but had done so for most of their life. They oozed Bard-blood, and you could easily see that this hardy couple were completely part of their Eastern surroundings during difficult and changing times, with a once-eager public now not so receptive to their form of entertainment.

Lizzy Barber's role as the Buckingham's daughter - also called Lizzie - was delivered with a great deal of subtlety to achieve the required level of innocence and naivety. Here was a girl born in India, knowing no life other than her one! on the road and on the stage. Lizzie's affair with Sanju Rai (Cael King) was touching and believable. In a truly ensemble piece, there really were no weak-links. In fact I don't think I've ever seen Tower release a 'weak-link' onto their stage! Llila Vis gave a lovely performance as a 1960s Bollywood diva Manjula (like Madonna, just a single name required) but Somita Basak was every bit on equal par as Manjula's mute companion, Didiji. For me, the aforementioned Anaish Parmar was the stand-out performance of the night in an eclectic mix of smaller roles which showed great versatility.

The only part of the play I would criticise would be the way the story begins and ends from the point of view of a present-day Indian film director. Winterbotham says in her programme notes "I did this to bring the show up to date, marking how our relationship with India has come of age, and to allow freer scope for creative manoeuvre." I didn't feel this move was a necessary addition to the production, especially at the very start, although the closing commentary did provide some interesting points.

Congratulations to Emmeline Winterbotham for having such a remarkable vision and also being brave enough, and skilled enough, to bring it together and full plaudits to Tower Theatre for producing it to such a high standard.
Next up for the company is, a little ironically, A Midsummer Night's Dream from 15th - 19th May at Theatro Technis, Camden, London.

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