Fearing that rain might stop play, as it were, I was delighted that the sun came out just in time for last night’s entertainment from the marvellous team Shakespeare in the Squares. For they have come up with the genius idea of bringing together two of England’s finest creations: the plays Shakespeare performed live in our unmatched garden squares. These squares are usually only open to key holders who live surrounding the square in question. So to get inside is a real treat. Last night’s performance was in the garden at the back of Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens. The giant plane trees whether by accident or design are laid out to form a circular arena within which the play can be staged. Miraculously the trees curve inwards at the top to create a roof canopy of astonishing natural beauty. The resulting effect of rus in urbe is utterly sublime. Ineffable truly. As if that were not enough last night’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream came as close to the 21st of June as to make no difference.
The cast, crew and creatives behind Shakespeare in the Squares are incredibly talented and resourceful. The designer Emily Stuart with a negligible budget has put together a beguiling set. Skilfully integrating the square’s plane trees she has projected a gorgeous mauve onto the trunks of the trees which somehow evokes the magical aura of the forest. Director Tatty Hennessy has a real understanding that audiences want to be entertained and enthralled. She directs with a sharpness and tempo which always moves the action forward. The actors literally sprint to the tent off stage left and change costumes within seconds. This sense of urgency conveys to the audience that the actors are on top of their game. And boy what actors they all are. Not only can they act, but they also play musical instruments, they sing, they dance – in short, they are all-round entertainers. They all play more than one part. Gemma Barnett and Paul Giddings each play three parts. Whilst Jodie Jacobs, Sioned Jones, David Leopold, Riad Richie, Hannah Sinclair Robinson and James Tobin all play two. The ability to play one part then sprint off to the tent and come back in a change of costume and start speaking in a completely different accent, which they all do, is outstanding and much underrated methinks.
This production really works well at bringing out the low comedy at the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I enjoy productions that revel in lowering the tone. This tone is set from the off by the loquacious Jodie Jacobs as Bottom, as she continually interrupts the hapless Quince, telling him what she will do and how she will do it. The seemingly endless Prologues having a Frankie Howerd “Up Pompeii” like absurdity. James Tobin gives a comic master class in his presentation of Puck. A mash-up of Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady his Puck is a pure delight. He brings out the double entendre in every line he speaks, e.g. “I’ll put a girdle around the world in forty minutes“, (his voice is a joy to listen to so clear and graceful) and adds a cheeky raised eyebrow or faint smile or wink to those in the know. Wonderful stuff.
The play within the play is tremendous. David Leopold’s Man in the Moon is a gem. Riad Richie as “Wall” is hilarious. Gemma Barnett’s Lion is spot on. Jodie Jacobs’ death scene is Tommy Cooper at his best. Hannah Sinclair Robinson is superb in her scenes with her suitors Lysander and Demetrius. Like a passenger waiting for a bus, she waits all day then two come along. How she rails against the two imposters. And the battle with her rival Hermia (Gemma Barnett) has some juicy insults about height and stature. The physical comedy is superbly choreographed. Especially the fight/dance sequence between Lysander and Demetrius. As if that were not enough to keep us entertained the production manages to squeeze effortlessly into the production, seven songs from the classic age of music hall and Broadway crooners. From In the Good Old Summertime (1902) to the Let’s Misbehave (1927). This outstanding production set in one of our loveliest gardens is a joy, a delight, it lifts the spirit. Forget Glyndebourne or Blenheim, Ladbroke Grove is the place to be.
Review by John O’Brien
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which will play across London, opening up the city’s glorious private squares and gardens. Directed by Tatty Hennessy, the production runs from 19 June to 11 July, with press night at Arundel and Ladbroke Gardens on 25 June.
Shakespeare’s wild play of love and magic is transplanted to 1920s Britain, a country bruised by battle and economic hardship where our lovers chafe against the constraints and conventions of an older generation and seek to find freedom in the forest. There they stumble upon a riotous world untouched by time, still reveling in illusion. Moonlight suffuses this drama, bringing romance and a touch of madness – even in an oppressive world, all manner of things can happen under cover of night.