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East of West Theatre Company presents As You Like It | Review

As You Like It at The New Normal FestivalThis COVID lark has a lot to answer for. As well as forcing me to spend much more time alone with my thoughts than is good for me, it has also had a catastrophic effect on the theatrical world. For example, the London College of Music was meant to hold its final year showcase for the graduating BA (Hons) Acting and BA (Hons) Actor-Musicianship students of 2020 a while ago, but it had to be postponed. However, all good things come to those that wait, and last night as part of the New Normal Festival, this talented group performed William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Described a pastoral comedy, As You Like It primarily takes place in the Forest of Arden which, it must be said, is a very busy place. This is due to the actions of the local rulers, specifically Duke Frederick (Gage Hendrix) who has pretty much managed to upset everyone in the Duchy. He has usurped his older brother Duke Senior (George Verghis) who is now and exile in the forest with his faithful supporters, including the melancholy Jacques (Miles Griffin). As an aside, brotherly love seems in short supply around the forest as Oliver de Boys (Asa Wooldridge) eldest son and heir to the late Sir Rowland de Boys has been persecuting his younger brother Orlando (Dominic Hyam) to the point where the lad has been forced to flee, taking with him an old family servant Adam (Benjamin Gold) and the two of them seek sanctuary in the forest. Duke Frederick is not a pleasant man and he has trouble keeping his temper. One day he goes completely over the top and banishes Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind (Rosie Malone) who is the companion of his daughter Celia (Kimberly Morina or Savannah-Raé Gordon). Unhappy with her father’s treatment of Rosalind, Celia persuades her and the jester Touchstone (Craig King) to run away to the forest and away from the Duke’s court. Arriving in the forest, disguised as a young man, Ganymede, and his sister Aliena, the two buy a small farm and live a simple life of local people. However, the gods do not like things to be too easy and it is not long before love rears its head and throws a curveball to the various people living in and around Arden. For Orlando is in love with Rosalind, who luckily loves him but unluckily has chosen to be disguised as the boy Ganymede. And ‘he’ attracts the attention of the shepherdess Phebe (Norleen Tabana Ndlovu) who has her own beau, the lovelorn Silvius (Reece J Morant). Not only that but even Touchstone has been bitten by the love bug as he wishes to be joined in matrimony to another shepherdess, Audrey (Louise Conway). At one point it looks as if nobody in Arden is going to be happy and with the person they love, but maybe there is something magical about the place that can pull all these individual strands together.

Being aware of how easy it is to be accused of being a philistine or heretic, I do try not to criticise Shakespeare’s writing too much. But I have got to say, there was more going on in As You Like It than a week trips to Coronation Street. There really is a lot happening in the forest and its surroundings. There is deceit, intrigue, romance, love, fighting, singing, cross-dressing, homoerotic overtones, forgiveness, and redemption. As if that isn’t enough there are some of the most famous quotable moments. It is a brave director that not only takes on such an epic tale but does so in the current situation so a massive round of applause to Rachel Heyburn and her team for putting on such a good show. Social distancing was maintained by the cast and when they had to physically interact, such as the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles (Rob Hardie) it was handled in a way that was safe for the actors and did not distract from the story itself. Bravo to all concerned. There were some issues with projection at times, especially when the action was at one end of the performing area and, while the tree in the middle of the ‘stage’ area was used to great scenic effect, it did sometimes mean that characters were out of sight to parts of the audience at times.

The main point of this production is to showcase the talents of the graduating students and there was some impressive work on display. Given everything that has happened to these graduates, I have to say how thoroughly impressed I was all round with the performance. Not only do they act but this group can sing and play instruments as well. Two performers really stood out for me. The first is Craig King as Touchstone. Craig did the introduction to the show, and it could not have been easy for him, given that the audience had gone through torrential rain, and a massive drop in temperature to be there. But Craig has a winning smile and a cheeky grin that immediately got everyone back on side and fired up for the production. As Touchstone, Craig really seemed to be enjoying himself and the character and had the audience giggling appreciatively at some of Touchstones antics and speeches. At the other end of the happiness scale was Miles Griffin as Jacques. This is such a difficult role and has the unenviable task of delivering one of Shakespeare’s greatest monologues – the seven ages of man – and Miles did it perfectly, every word enunciated clearly and at the right pitch to really bring home the power of this speech. Miles has a real stage presence and, even when doing nothing, while Orlando was uttering lines about eternal love, you could tell exactly what Jacques thought of the words he was hearing.

To finish, this was my first time seeing As You Like It and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at this performance. The cast did a sterling job of getting the story out and making sure that a newcomer like me did not get lost in the various twists and turns of the plot. However, this is not a case where the play’s the thing and, if the graduates from the London College of Music is any indication, then the theatre world is in for a lot of fun as a talented and impressive bunch of graduates leave and go off to seek their fortune. I for one wish them all the luck in the word and look forward to reviewing them in the years to come.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

As You Like It was originally set to be performed at the London College of Music as the final year showcase for the graduating BA (Hons) Acting and BA (Hons) Actor Musicianship students of 2020. The production was sadly – but necessarily – due to Covid-19. As You Like It is revived at The New Normal Festival by the production’s director, Rachel Heyburn (Pussy Riot, Banksy’s Dismaland), who was determined to give these extremely talented graduating students the opportunity to perform that they all so richly deserve.

The New Normal Festival has been organised by Sean Turner, Associate Director on The Play That Goes Wrong (West-End, International and Tour). It runs throughout August and its programme includes shows that had been destined for Edinburgh, as well as productions from the 2020 Vault Festival, which were cut short when the UK went into lockdown in March.

LISTING:
Victoria Patriotic Building, John Archer Way,
London, SW18 3SX
Monday 24th and Tuesday 25th
August 2020 | 7.30pm (with venue entry available at 6pm for food/drinks)

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