Monday 4 July 2011

Propeller Revisited: Richard III & The Comedy of Errors (Hampstead Theatre)

Writing about Propeller’s effervescent production of The Comedy of Errors earlier this year [review here], I reflected that the quick-fire inventiveness, energy and allusiveness of the company’s productions make it pretty much a requirement to see them more than once. Happily, that opportunity recently arose, as the company’s  tour of Comedy and Richard III [review here] has now reached Hampstead Theatre where the productions run until July 9th.

Delighted as I was to have the chance to experience both shows again, it must be acknowledged that there’s a certain amount of risk involved in seeing especially beloved productions for a second time. Will the shows have run out of steam? Will I, as an audience member, be as responsive? And most simply and most pressingly: Will it be as good as I remember it?

Happy to report that Ed Hall’s productions more than passed the test, having lost not an ounce of their freshness and exuberance in the intervening months. If anything, the shows felt richer than before, more deeply embedded, more confident and assured, and while a couple of the big surprise elements (both dramatic and comedic) couldn’t quite match the impact of the first viewing, the overall response was sheer unmitigated delight. Richard III seemed darker than before, with Richard Clothier’s Richard even wittier and more deadly, and the Theatre of Blood-esque murders more outrageous than I remembered them.

And The Comedy of Errors remains the feel-good show of the year for me - a riotous, cartoonish take on the play that’s still capable of moving into genuine emotion and tenderness in its final moments of reconciliation. Moreover, seeing the productions within just a couple of days of each other (rather than a couple of months, as previously) made the versatility, vitality and sheer damned brilliance of the ensemble even more apparent.

A small selection of (many, many) favourite moments and touches. From Richard III: the Princes in the Tower - angelic puppets here - clinging to the skirts of Dominic Tighe’s magnificent Queen Elizabeth; Tony Bell’s Margaret sprinkling blood from a bowl as she curses those who have wronged her and recalls Yorkist crimes; Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s prim Richard Ratcliff checking his time-piece as body bags arrive; the Eve-of-Bosworth nightmare, with Chris Myles’s Buckingham clutching his entrails; Wayne Cater’s bizarre appearance as Tyrell, and the sudden shock of Richard’s death. And from Comedy: the freeze-frame device; David Newman’s devilish coquette Luciana unleashing her Mace spray and mean martial-arts moves; Myles’s whip-wielding, lavender-booted abbess arriving to a snatch of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven (Is A Place on Earth)”; Richard Frame’s Dromio offering his epic discourse on Nell the Kitchen Wench; Sam Swainsbury’s Antipholus of E scaling heights of comic desperation as he recounts the crazy plot; and Kelsey Brookfield’s wily bunny-girl hostess bouncing in (“Awight?”). And, yes, Tony Bell’s barn-storming appearance as the dirty-minded evangelist Dr. Pinch (“He was saved!”) is still the most outrageously enjoyable set-piece I’ve seen in a theatre  this year. Then there are the cheeky ad-libs and lovely bits of audience interaction, and what a treat to see and hear (and singalong with) the gang’s 80s-pop-hits medley in its entirety this time around during the interval - it’s almost worth the price of admission alone.

At once cutting-edge and timeless, intensely physical yet respectful of the language, Propeller’s vibrant, risky approach has again resulted in two totally contrasting yet marvellously complementary theatre experiences that are thrilling and immersive - and tremendous fun. Pure pleasure from start to finish, this irresistible pairing makes most other Shakespeare productions seem altogether too tame and civilised by comparison. Roll on the company’s Henry V and The Winter’s Tale, which will premiere later this year.

Further information on final tour dates and venues here.

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