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Circus 1903

Circus 1903

Circus 1903 company. Photo: Dan Tsantilis


When you assess a show professionally you are supposed to judge it as being decent, weak, good or outstanding for a production of its type. Well I haven’t the faintest idea how to star rate this one since I’ve never seen anything remotely like it before and therefore have nothing to measure it against. This was the first circus I’ve been to since childhood and that was so long ago that I remember plumed horses and roaring lions all of which is now illegal in the UK, thank goodness. I’ve seen occasional circus acts in, say, panto or the piazza at Covent Garden but never the whole caboodle. Well, after much thought I’ve decided it’s a four on the simple grounds that I enjoyed it very much and it includes some stunning performances. I have only a couple of minor reservations of which more shortly.

In a sense Circus 1903 is a play-within-a-play. We’re meant to be in an American touring circus of which there were many (remember Barnum and Bailey The Greatest Show on Earth) in the early 20th Century. The year is 1903 and in the first act they are setting up, rehearsing the show and training the elephants: two life-size puppets by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller are a theatrical tour de force. They are beautiful – moving, in every sense – and totally convincing. The second half is more or less a performance, with glitzier costumes, beginning with a parade and ending with a finale.

It’s noteworthy that none of the spectacular acts is British or even American. Most are from South America or Eastern Europe. And they are mind-blowingly, heart-in-mouth good. As I watched them I was forcibly struck that what this work needs is three things: phenomenal trust, bodies trained to behave like iron and decades of practice. The “Daring Desafios”, for instance are a quartet of grinning tattooed young men from Brazil who launch themselves to enormous heights from a teeterboard turning double and triple somersaults in the air. The cheerful camaderie they exude belies the skill of the coordination which is like a very fast four man dance.

We also get Roberto Carlos from Mexico juggling, Natalia Leontieva from Russia doing impossible things with spinning hoops and Olava Rocha Muniz and Denise Torres de Souza, also   Brazilian, in a “Russian Cradle”. The latter involves very daring arial work with nail biting mid air throws. The highest (literally) spot for me was two brothers from Colombia on a “wheel of death. It’s a huge structure like a giant egg timer made from metal tubing and mesh and it’s flown slowly down to stage level. One man in each oval space makes it spin – ever faster as they walk, skip, jump and sometimes climb round the outside of it. The top man standing upright almost has his head in the flies. It’s quite an act.

So all in all a fine show. Recorded music is composed and arranged by Evan Jolly who borrows from all sorts of genres including some traditional circus numbers and some atmospheric classical. It works quite well in the first half but becomes far too loud and relentless in the second. The performances are excellent, Adding that level of noise as an enhancement is almost an insult to the acrobats who don’t need their work psyched up like this.

My other reservation is that I really don’t like squirm-inducing gags involving audience children brought on stage and made to look silly and there’s too much of that in this show although David Williamson as ring master is fairly gentle with them. Even I have to admit, however, that it’s very funny when a child is invited to thrust the traditional plate of shaving foam in her own father’s face and does it with glee.

Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus

It’s vintage Bennett and just as funny as when it was first staged in 1974 especially in the hands of Patrick Marber and his cast of nine accomplished actors.

A surreal play, it’s farce without the clutter.  It makes no attempt at realism. The set consists of a coffin, identities are continually mistaken, characters burst into song and often deliver soliloquies in rhyming couplets. Twice we get manic tango to the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem. There’s a running gag about size (Dan Starkey as Sir Percy Shorter and that’s what he is) borrowed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a great deal of misunderstanding about a pair of false breasts.

We’re in the home of an unlikely doctor in Hove and almost everyone is randily yearning for sex with someone inappropriate. There’s something appealingly innocent about this at a time when me too, political correctness and a woke world lie decades into the future.

It’s play about rampant desire at the heart of which is an outstanding performance from Jasper Britton as Dr Arthur Wicksteed. He undermines his character’s non existent professionalism with a mere lift of an eyebrow and entertains with fake gravitas. Catherine Russell is splendid as his sadly ridiculous wife longing to be loved and fulfilled by almost anyone. But they also bring some depth to the piece in their reconciliation scene towards the end of the play which is actually quite moving.

Ria Jones as Mrs Swabb the cleaning lady does a lovely job as the quasi narrator. Very Welsh and making outrageous but perceptive comments she really makes the role her own. And since Bennett played this role himself in the original production it’s a pretty hard act to follow. There’s a nice nod to the playwright’s presence in this production when Matthew Cottle, as Canon Throbbing, intones a few lines of verse a distinctively Bennettian voice.

The play includes some memorable lines such as “Sometimes I think Freud died in vain” and “In Memphis, Tennessee, fourteen babies have been born since this play began” – all delivered with wit and panache. And of course – like all the best dramas – it ends with a paternity revelation in The Marriage of Figaro tradition.

Catch it if you can. It’s a couple of hours of real escapism.

Operation Ouch! Live on Stage – Not for the Squeamish

Operation Ouch! Live on Stage – Not for the Squeamish

They’re back and playing  to an even more packed theatre than The Apollo Theatre enjoyed pre-lockdown. I know as I was there on that occasion too.

It’s little wonder this new show has proved so popular, for several reasons:

  • Operation Ouch! is one of CBBC’s most popular shows.
  • Children don’t understand or care about social distancing, Covid etc. so coming to the live show is no big deal.
  • Children love talking and laughing about poo.
  • Twin brothers, and Doctors Xand and Chris know exactly how to engage with their young audiences.
  • The 70-minute show features multiple Gross Alerts!

Mix that lot together and you’ve filled the stalls and all three circles. It didn’t even matter that at the press performance the stage appeared to lose its power supply just when it needed it – meaning the two doctors had to improvise until the electricity supply returned and their endoscope was ready to display the inner workings of the bearded Doctor Xand, live.

And live it certainly was. Dressed in blue (Doctor Chris who tries to take the more serious approach) and green (Doctor Xand who tends to mess about whenever the chance arises) scrubs, the identical twin brothers have obviously decided to throw caution to the wind and ignore any potential embarrassment to the point where each of the doctors displayed a photo of the other enjoying some potty time as a toddler. The subject of the new show is the quest for the golden poo – and you can guess what such a challenge might entail… explaining what poo is and how it forms in the body. What’s not to like!

At one point Doctor Chris is even tricked into drinking from flask 1 or flask 2. One contains stew, the other diarrhoea. See the photo below for which one he chose. Operation Ouch! on CBBC features ‘Gross Alerts’ whenever most people may wish to look away. Of course, these notifications simply make an children move even closer to the screen. Well the same applies in the live show; you just need to substitute ‘closer to the screen’ with ‘closer to the edge of their seats’. All while any brave adults, still looking, screw their faces up in disgust.

But the show isn’t without its educational side. To that end, both children and adults alike came out knowing more that they did upon arrival to Shaftesbury Avenue’s Lyric Theatre, especially how the different areas of the brain work.

It’s hilarious, it’s gross, it’s brilliant. Apart from the impromptu power-cut it’s almost perfect. To be eight again! Mini Sardines loved it which is always a good sign. Another good sign is how quickly the time flew by. Seventy minutes appeared to pass in the blink of an eye.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Image: David Ovenden


What better way to spend a December evening than by being transported to the sunny French Riviera? If another show sees life as a cabaret, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels takes a gambling casino as its setting and a metaphor for the shady, if entertaining, world it depicts. On entering the Bridewell Theatre’s performance area with its black drapes and gaming tables, no sooner have you parted with your coins for a programme than, and, as the band tunes up, croupiers ply you with chips and draw you into their world.

And oh boy, what a band it is! In preparation for the show, I’d played the original American cast recording and, for just a moment, wondered if I was hearing that orchestral track. Chris Nelson’s baton inspires his fifteen-strong band to bring out all the pep and buzz of the original orchestrations in David Yazbek’s delicious score, and the bubbly company follows suit. The production is as musically sound as any big musical in the West End.

The piece itself breaks no new ground. In fact, it’s almost a throwback to the light-hearted musical comedies of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties but, as the recent success of the Anything Goes revival showed us, is just what the doctor ordered for the dismal times we’re living through. There’s even a haunting love ballad, Nothing is Too Wonderful – albeit spoofed – and some wise-cracking numbers which could have been penned by Cole Porter.

Lawrence holds sway as the resident conman in the resort. When he meets another scoundrel, Freddy, on a train he first tries to help him, then makes use of him before deciding there isn’t room for them both in town and challenges him to a gamble. Whoever manages to successfully swindle a woman out of $50,000 can stay. Whoever loses must leave.

Gangsters and other lowlife are, of course, stock characters in musical comedy and, once again, we’re in lovable rogue territory here. In her excellent Director’s Notes, Zoë Thomas-Webb suggests that even ephemeral light-hearted musicals may cause an audience to reflect on aspects of the human condition. If this one has a weakness, whilst entertaining, it doesn’t risk, as the The Producers succeeds in doing, tottering on the knife-edge of outrageous bad taste. Yet the sheer simplicity of her production, in which a couple of chairs can become a railway carriage at the twisting of a couple of waiter’s arms, ensures everything moves deftly and keeps us involved.

To be honest, I’d found the charm of the 1988 film resistible, and even this musical version, first served to us in London in 2014 didn’t totally engage me. But as sometimes happens, a fringe venue and company can bring a special magic, even warmth to the proceedings which, in this case, makes the reprobates more endearing. The production is pure joy from start to finish!

The principal conmen, Rob Archibald as the urbane Lawrence and Joey Henshaw, the socially inept Freddy, are well contrasted and make a fine double act. Archibald brings vocal versatility to the various persona required by his role, his transformation into a Viennese doctor being particularly hilarious, whilst Henshaw’s clumsy teddy bear antics are equally delightful. This is comic playing of a high order. They get good support from: Imogen Johnson as the Soap Queen who isn’t quite who they, and we, are led to believe she is; Louise Roberts as an American socialite and potential victim of the pair (her coup de théâtre at the end (no spoiler!) is brilliant); and Dan Saunders as Andre the corrupt but charming Head of Police in league with Lawrence.

Jen Bullock also shines as Jolene a wealthy young woman, who manipulates herself into becoming temporarily engaged to Lawrence and performs a riveting speciality dance with the ensemble, extolling the dubious virtues of her home state.

Jonathon Grant and Fiona McConachie have choreographed the show superbly and in numbers such as the latter (Oklahoma!) make full use of the deep stage area, not to mention large pink Stetsons – even if, sometimes, the dancing could be sharper.

I was puzzled – and distracted – by a cast/audience member mysteriously planted at one of the tables. Was this a Brechtian alienation device or had another critic been given a ringside seat? I could also have done with better diction from some cast members who spoke and sang a tad too fast for mature ears. Admittedly, many of the songs have quick tempos, but Yazbek’s clever lyrics and Jeffrey Lane’s witty lines are too good to miss.

No matter, it was terrific to be back once again with an enthusiastic young cast and audience at The Bridewell and be reassured that Sedos, despite the problems of the past twenty-odd months, hasn’t let its very high standards slip. The two-and-a half hours sped by in a delightful whirl of mirth, movement and melody.

Strongly recommended!

Juliet & Romeo

Juliet & Romeo

Image: Richard Jinman


So what happens if you give Juliet’s lines to Romeo and his to her thus making her a Montague and him a Capulet? You get a topical, thoughtful  take on the play which really makes you stop and think about why, even today, we often expect females to be more passive than males. You are also forced to reflect on the whole nature of loyalty, violence, knife crime and much more. This interpretation, set in London in 2021 (a positive Covid test becomes part of the plot)  and couched in Intermission’s trade mark seamless blend of street speak and Shakespeare, is effectively a powerful commentary on the play as we know it.

Juliet, for example, is in the garden – feisty and very interested –  while Romeo, more diffidently, is on the balcony.  It is Juliet who is banished at the end (“Your Uber’s waiting”) while Romeo’s sister, Capo, is keen get him on an aircraft and away to film school because that’s what he’s always wanted to do and she wants him out of the way. Then of course it’s Romeo who lies dead when Juliet returns – and the ending isn’t quite what Shakespeare gives us but I was deeply moved especially by the searing anguish of Megan Samuel as Capo.

One of the most startlingly effective ideas in this vibrant production is the chorus. Rather more Greek than Shakespearean a group of eight actors is threaded amongst the action watching, commenting, interjecting usually in very short burst of the original text. They act as an inner voice for characters on stage as well as making observations. It’s tight, neat and impressively synchronised. Asked in the post show question and answer session how they’d achieved it, one of them answered, chuckling: “With a lot of practice!” I also liked the way we get Friar and Lawrence, a pair who run a tattoo parlour as a cover for an illicit drugs business.

The twenty six members of the company role share so that, although they’re all involved there are two cast lists. I saw the Juliet Cast  which gave us Ophelia J Wisdom as Juliet and, my goodness how she develops the character in the “two hours traffic of our stage”. She starts as an everyday teenager and ends as a mature woman. It’s a very convincing performance.

Intermission Youth Theatre works with young people from across London who are helped to find a pathway away from risk or danger of various sorts through drama. Improvisations facilitate devising which Darren Raymond eventually converts into a script.  The standard of work they produce  is remarkable especially, this time, given the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Manor

Manor

All photos: Manuel Harlan


Having waited over a year to see Moira Buffini’s new play there was a real buzz in the audience.  Lez Botherston’s incredible set, with its precipitous staircase, random suits of armour and amazing tilted windows and the endlessly threatening projections that role across the cyc, creating a constant sense of foreboding, lead the audience to believe that great things are to come.

The sprawling plot begins with a wrangling couple and a dead body, which sounds like the opening of an Agatha Christie play. They are interrupted by a series of arbitrary visitors, who become trapped in an old manor house while a storm rages outside.  The dead body goes missing – which still sounds like an Agatha Christie play I hear you say. As each new arrival makes their entrance we are treated to a series of conversations and duologues that reveal the individual needs and desires of this disparate group of characters, who have been accidentally thrown together. Hmm – still sounding like an Agatha Christie play!

As with all such plays there are some characters we warm to and others we dislike and during the course of two and half hours our allegiances shift and change.  However, this group of itinerant refugees from the storm all carry a label. Ted, the compelling leader of Albion, a far-right group, his blind (in all senses of the word) girlfriend Ruth, Anton, a young offender groomed whilst in prison and hopelessly loyal to Ted, Ripley, the black A & E nurse training to be a doctor and Isadora, her sulky teenage daughter on a weekend mini-break from south London, Fiske, a liberal gay vicar, Perry, an overweight, lonely young man living in a caravan – and herein lies the problem with this play.  In Manor, Buffini has seemingly tried to address all modern issues at once.  There is a light touch given to so many serious issues: climate change, racism, fascism, class, domestic abuse, homosexual clergymen, lesbian relationships all rear their head, but by the end you feel that no single topic has been tackled comprehensively.  Cold calculating, unscrupulous characters, such as Ted Farrier, the leader of ‘Albion’, show their true colours, but seem to receive their comeuppance far too easily. If only dealing with these issues was so simple.

Despite this there are some strong performances. Shaun Evans is excellent as Ted Farrier, showing all too easily how a svengali influence can lead to women denying abusive behaviour, young men agreeing to acts of terrorism and vulnerable loners being manipulated.  Michele Austin, as Ripley, also gives a sterling performance.  A calm voice of someone who knows her place in the world and stands up to bullies. However, the characters swing somewhere between naturalism and caricature, fading rock stars and angst-ridden teenagers, all being given their moment to make a statement; these characters are more symbolic than real.

There are some great moments of humour, some seriously black comedy, but as a whole the play itself is disappointingly flawed.

Rumi: The Musical

Rumi: The Musical

Image: Jane Hobson


Rumi: The Musical began life as a concept recording. Its creators, Dana Al Fardan and Nadim Naaman, began their journey towards the end of 2019, with the final album being released in June 2021, so this truly was a pandemic project.

Showing for two nights only at the London Coliseum for its world premiere, the musical depicts a snapshot of the life of 13th Century Turkish mystic, philosopher and poet Rumi. In 1244, Rumi meets the enigmatic Shams-i-Tabrizi, and their deep connection and friendship changes everything, not only for the men themselves but also for Rumi’s family.

Even today, Rumi’s teachings and ideologies are popular across the world, so it’s surprising that a musical hasn’t been written about him before.

The production feels somewhat swallowed up on the huge stage of the Coliseum, with its small cast and minimal set. However, I liked the relative simplicity of it all, allowing the audience space to concentrate on the story and music. I was instantly reminded of Children of Eden and Godspell, not only because of the show’s religious context but because of the measured and philosophical dialogue that takes place between songs.

This isn’t a fast-paced musical; it’s ballad-heavy, and on first listen, not all the songs have a strong hook. But the cast, led by seasoned West End performer Ramin Karimloo (Shams) and Naaman himself (Rumi), deliver strong and powerful performances. A particular standout is duet Somewhere in act two, sung by Rumi’s wife Kara (Soophia Foroughi) and stepdaughter Kimya (Casey Al-Shaqsy).

Rumi: The Musical is very much about fusion. The show is interspersed with sections of dance, a mix of contemporary and Middle Eastern, and the music deftly intertwines Persian and Middle Eastern sounds with more traditional musical theatre fare. I did find myself wishing the volume could be turned up a few notches, as the sound overall was missing that extra bit of punch, but the score has intrigued me enough to want a second listen. It was also wonderful to hear that traditional Middle Eastern instruments formed part of the orchestra.

Rumi: The Musical has a way to go before it reaches the dizzying heights of other West End debuts, but this mystical musical was a pleasant and sometimes powerful journey through the life of a man who still inspires millions today.

The Bolds

The Bolds

All photos: Ellie Kurttz


This show is warm, silly, affectionate, whacky and very funny. But, actually it’s more than it seems on the surface. At the heart of all the surreality of this upbeat Christmas jolly lies an immigration story, questions about inclusion, adaptation, fitting in and a gentle euthanasia subplot. And that’s why it works. We get real emotion as well as escapist nonsense from this accomplished cast of seven, several of whom are actor-musos.

A pair of enterprising Tanzanian hyenas, whose English is perfect, steal the identities of two tourists eaten by a crocodile. The new Mr and Mrs Bold, tails hidden under their clothes, come to live in the former Bold home in Teddington – where they, and soon their two children, conceal their Hyena identity, get jobs and live more or less as if they were human beings. They laugh a lot, as hyenas do and Mr Bold (David Ahmad) works as a writer of cracker jokes and some of them are very good. They don’t get on with their neighbour (Sam Pay) and eventually mount a rescue operation for a threatened hyena in a safari park – and that’s most of the plot.

Julian Clary’s songs are bright, cheerful and catchy and with orchestrations and arrangements by Simon Wallace (on stage on keys)  they range over a whole spectrum of styles. The retro rock and roll number “There’s nothing keener than a hyena” is good fun, for example, with the word “Hyena” flown down on a big panel with flashing

James Button’s set is neat. We see a kitchen, a dining room and bedroom and at one point a simple but clever way of showing of two groups of hyenas tunnelling towards each other under a brick wall. And there’s a skeletal blue Skoda in which the Bolds drive round the safari park.

Of course you don’t have to work very hard to see that the Bolds, with their different ways, trying desperately hard to conform are like any other immigrants. It’s hilarious but also mildly poignant. And the story about Tony who has to be rescued because he’s old and the vets are going to put him down really pulls at the heart strings. Bear in mind, too, that Julian Clary wrote this so when rescued Tony chums up with Mr McNumpty we are wittily led to sense that they might have a future together beyond friendship.

I’m awarding the fourth star for two reasons. First the performance of Amanda Gordon as Mrs Bold is glorious. She communicates volumes with the merest look, sings beautifully and moves compellingly. Second, I loved the tuba (Sam Pay) in the orchestrations. It gives aural depth and adds an unusual sparky musical humour.

But the funniest joke of the evening (on press night) was not scripted. Sam Pay, resignedly and rhetorically, as Mr McNumpty: Who knows what’s been going on while I’ve been at the shop? Child in audience: Me!

Anything Goes (Cinema Screening)

Anything Goes (Cinema Screening)

This is the screening of the “Show of the Year” (the show’s strapline) filmed at the Barbican Theatre during its sold-out run in the summer.

It received 5-star reviews across the board and, after seeing this screening – which I know can never quite match up to the ‘live’ experience no matter how slick its production values – I can only agree with every single one. This show is simply perfect. Directed and choreographed by the multi-award-winning Kathleen Marshall and produced by the Midas touch of Trafalgar Theatre Productions (Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire) its final masterstroke was in the casting of Sutton Foster, Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendal and Gary Wilmot.

The role of Reno Sweeney was to originally be played by Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) who had to pull out citing an ‘injury’ as the reason. However, after seeing Sutton Foster reprise her award-winning Broadway performance – seemingly with consummate ease – I can’t help wondering if the role proved too demanding for Mullally. One thing that’s for sure is how popular this musical is with non-professional societies up and down the UK. Every creative who has any level of decision-making for their musical group should see this screening on either 28 November or 1 December. The inspiration to be gathered is so valuable.

The skill of the entire company is there for all to see, but one cannot help but notice how much fun the leading quartet are having throughout the show. The trick is, of course, the easier it looks usually means the more skill is involved in the performance. For this one need look no further than Lindsay and Foster. The pair’s chemistry is one of laid-back fun. I had the good fortune to interview Lindsay a few years ago when the actor was preparing to make his pantomime debut as Captain Hook. He won an award that time and should do so again for his role as Moonface Martin. The confidence needed to underplay a role so well is sublimely delivered by this pair. Foster is every bit the leading lady and it shows.

Away from the four top billers, great credit must also go to Samuel Edwards (Billy Crocker), Nicole-Lily Baisden (Hope Harcourt), Haydn Oakley (Lord Evelyn Oakleigh) and Carly Mercedes Dyer (Erma).

Not a single comedic opportunity has been missed by anybody which is worthy praise for both cast and director. In fact, what ever area of theatre you might specialise in, there is a master-class waiting for you in Anything Goes. Show of the Year may become ‘Show of the Decade’ …and so it should.

Head over to https://www.anythinggoesmusicalcinema.com/ for tickets now.

A Merchant of Venice

A Merchant of Venice

All photos: Guy Bell – GBPhotos.com


This felt like a somewhat important occasion as the audience contained several well-known figures. It was full and in touching distance of the cast. The set was spare with an open, square space and benches on all four sides, netting covering the main entrance on one side and a generally dark feel to the stage. Corner floodlights initially lit the cast and somewhat overwhelmed the audience.

John McAndrew, as Antonio, set the tone of the evening as he stood with little expression or emotion to deliver his opening, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” His style of delivery remained throughout the play. One can only assume that this was deliberate.

His partner for the opening was Mary Chater, who played Solania. She was the only character beyond the five major protagonists in the original play and she was used by the director, Bill Alexander, to provide continuity to the severely reduced plot. This worked well as did the use of devices such as calling to someone off stage (Jessica) or making a phone call (Tubal). Other missing characters were referred to (Lorenzo) or were completely absent (Launcelot).  All of this editing and positioning of the play worked well.

The key early scene is when Bassanio, played by Alexander Knox, describes to Antonio his love for a woman called Portia. Alexander establishes the character of Bassanio in this section and maintains it well throughout the play. He makes excellent use of the stage space and makes connection with all parts of the audience.

In this latter regard, Lena Robin as Portia makes even more of a connection with the audience by both looking directly at people and by parading her phone and the pictures of her many potential suitors. This early rapport with the audience is not really built on as her remaining are a little flat.

The big entrance of the play is that of Shylock, played by Peter Tate. He stands opposite Bassanio as he fails to respond to entreaties to take the bond. This is a big scene for Shylock with the famous speech where he notes, “You spit on me on Wednesday last” and yet, “I’ll lend you thus much moneys.” Throughout the remainder of the play Tate maintains Shylock’s hurt, unfair stance. The audience is left feeling uneasy towards him and, despite a short additional moment added by the director where Shylock contemplates suicide, there is no resolution.

There is a key section of the play where much of what Shakespeare wrote is edited out. This seems to work, and we are left with the knowledge that Bassanio will marry Portia and that Antonio is in deep trouble as his ships have foundered and Shylock is on his case after Shylock discovers that his daughter has eloped and taken his jewels. Shylock declares, “I will have the heart of him” in reference to Antonio – all said very effectively on the phone to Tubal.

All the action in the first act of the play (as presented in two acts lasting one hour and, forty minutes respectively) takes place in the open empty space of the theatre. The key court scene in the second act is set on six metal framed chairs. They face forwards and the actors sit squarely or twist and turn as their speeches require. As an ex-director of this play, I know how tricky it is set this scene and this works effectively.

In many respects this is Portia’s scene, but the director has set her in a minor placing at the back of rows of chairs. Her big speech. “The quality of mercy is not strained…” is delivered well and perhaps the minor placing works as the star of this scene as presented is Shylock. It certainly works when Shylock sharpens the knife on the sole of his shoe. That said, in the original, Antonio’s plight as the knife is raised above his breast is a piece of drama that we are not given.

The very odd moment in this whole play is when Shylock is shown alone muttering the words of a hymn and taking poison out of his pocket. As far as I could see this is the only section of the play that is not Shakespeare. It feels to me as though the director, whom I assume was the author of this version of the play (in the programme – “my version of the play”) has felt the need to assure us that we know he is the author/ editor.

It might seem surprising reading this that the standout character of this performance is Alex Wilson as Gratiano. Whilst his role had little influence on the plot, every time he was on stage the whole performance raised a gear. He was animated and clearly responding to everything that was happening. This was especially true in the court scene. He was beyond dismayed that Antonio was going to die and when it became clear that the victim was going to be Shylock, he went into overdrive, No wonder Shylock felt the need to top himself!

The final act of the play was essentially as Shakespeare intended with Portia catching Bassanio in an impossible trap as he cannot show the ring. The performance of both Lean and Alexander is well captured in these final moments.

A slight anti-climax is Antonio finding himself alone at the end of the play with no Jessica to withhold her cross from. One has had few clues throughout the play as to what is going on in his head – so we are left slightly adrift at this ending.

All in all, the play works in this amended version and is well supported through the work of Ryan Day on lighting and Sarah Sayeed on sound. The early problem with being blinded by the light is replaced by excellent use of light and sound in this highly charged format. The costumes are fine for the men, but the ladies seem not to be quite in modern dress leaving the audience slightly off balance.

As noted at the beginning, this performance seemed to be a mecca for famous people. From the various reactions of the audience to key points in the play and the enthusiastic applause at the end, requiring an unscripted re-entry of the cast for an unlit bow, it seemed to work.

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