Writer: William Shakespeare
Adaptor: Edward Hall and Roger Warren
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
All male drama productions are interesting beasts. I saw my first a few years ago: Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre with the wonderful Mark Rylance playing Viola, who of course spends most of the play disguised as a boy, being courted by both the Duke Orsino and the lady Olivia. My abiding memory is of how this added a special richness, and new subtlety to the comedy of the romantic interplay between the trio.
All male company Propeller are at the Lowry Theatre in Salford this week with two productions, alternating the gruesome Richard III, with the near-slapstick Comedy of Errors. I only saw the latter, so judgement on the added flavour brought to the tragedy by single sex casting is in the hands of others.
So does an all male cast add anything extra to the play? If not, does it detract in any way? Well, the pantomime dame remains an archetype of gender displacement for comic effect, and the good men of Propeller venture close to this territory to extract the maximum humour from the comic twists. The female characters are as over the top as the Courtesan’s cantilevered bosoms, but this reading of the play can stand it.
Shakespeare threw the kitchen sink into this one. Not one but two sets of estranged identical twins, separated at birth, turn up in the same city 25 years later. This is Ephesus twinned with 1980’s Benidorm: cheesy, brazen, cheeky, loud and lewd. Music pumps the show along, and sound effects create a constant backdrop to supplement the frenzy of the convoluted plot. Mistaken identities, disguises, misunderstandings, mishaps and mayhem - the staples of Elizabethan comedy taken to the extreme; with knobs on.
If Shakespeare gave us Elizabethan comic farce at 110%, Propeller up the ante considerably by adding some extra spice of their own manufacture. Puritans might lament the liberties taken with the text, and the modernity of the interpretation, but Shakespeare never had much time for puritans, and neither did the audience at the Lowry. The Lyric Theatre contained several groups of teenagers, who chanted, cheered, jeered and clapped along with the carnival atmosphere created by the on stage band. On stage? Also out in the foyer at the interval, sustaining the fiesta with a riotous mix of school disco favourites.
But was it Shakespeare? You bet your boots. While some liberties were taken to tweak some of the text for a meaning that would register with the Catherine Tate generation, the Director handled these with respect. Or perhaps that should read RESPECT! I don’t think the Bard would have minded.
There was not a weak aspect to the whole performance. The acting, particularly that of the two sets of twins, was perfectly weighted. Robert Hands, playing Adriana, stole several scenes as the deserted diva wife, but others were guilty of similar thefts. Tony Bell as the conjurer, Pinch, had a hoard of cases to be taken into account as his deranged bible basher brought the second half to a climactic musical crescendo, and later made a memorable exit, not pursued by a bear, but with a bare behind, and a perilously positioned sparkler illuminating his passage through the auditorium.
The set was startlingly simple, but very effective. Shutters sprayed with graffiti tags that formed an appropriately urban backdrop, but had enough flexibility - used imaginatively - to create all the spaces required for the plot to develop. It never intruded. Lighting was similarly unobtrusive, and the few special effects were well judged.
Propeller created a joyous evening’s entertainment. It is too restrictive to describe it as a play. It was just enormous fun from start to finish.
Runs until 12th March at the Lowry, and on tour until 23rd July (but mainly outside UK)