A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre review *****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bridge Theatre, 6th June 2019

Go join the Shakespeare party down at the Bridge. Nick Hytner pretty much always nails the Bard and he has done it again here. Ignore the lukewarm reviews from the critics who seem to have got a little bit antsy with Hytner’s central inversion of Titania/Hippolyta and Theseus/Oberon. Yes this creates a couple of creaky moments, but what it gains in its celebration of non-binary, gender fluid sexuality, more than compensates. And it helps make this the funniest Dream I have ever seen. Add to this the sense, if not maybe the actuality, of immersion which comes from the promenaders in the pit, (though this may not be the best place to take everything in), and the multiple wow moments that flow from set, staging, costumes and cast, and, for me, this became unmissable. My only regret is being tucked away in a corner on my tod because I couldn’t persuade any of the usual suspects that this would be a Shakespeare production free from their usual misgivings. Should have tried hared.

Did I also say that the cast delivers the full text with perfect transparency? Because they do. OK so maybe a little of the poetry gets sidelined amidst all the activity, and there are some fairly unsubtle, though often very amusing, additional lines. But if you want a Dream to show exactly what is going on along the way then this is for you. The unpleasant nature of the genesis of the story is also not shirked. Theseus was the king in Greek myth who founded the Athenian democracy, having defeated the Amazons led by Hippolyta, whom he subjugated.. The play opens with a “celebration” of this event, here with the women dressed in religious habits and Hippolyta in the form of the imposing guise of Gwendoline Christie, (you know who in you know what), imprisoned in a glass cage. Oliver Chris, who I confess I am now even more a little bit inn love with, cuts a rigid Theseus. All the guff about the little baby and Egeus’s (Kevin McMonagle) demands of his daughter starts to make sense. Hippolyta looks at Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and the brutal truth of the patriarchal norm is established.

Not for long though. AMND after all is all about the dreams. What happens when we are plunged into another, freer “reality.” And how that other “reality” affects our real reality, if you see what I mean. And it is joy, celebration, sexy time and swapping which defines this particular “reality”. So to invert the two dual characters makes perfect sense and lets fly the interventions which fuel all sorts of other passions, from the Athenian lovers, from the fairies and best of all from Bottom (Hammed Animashaun) and the now liberated Oberon. You would be hard pressed tp find a better double act on any stage than these two. Anywhere. Anytime. I am constantly amazed just how good a comedy writer big Will was and how, in sympathetic hands, even gags I have heard multiple times can still make me smile. Though here it is much what we see as what we hear that makes it so funny.

Anyway once all the shenanigans in the forest is over and we return to the city, and the weddings, and the mechanicals, the change in Theseus rings true. His world changed for good over one blinding night out. Like I say I cannot praise Oliver Chris enough. In my book one of the best comic actors on the British stage. As is Hammed Animashaun. A Bottom who might have stepped off any London street today.

Mt Hytner has not neglected the rest of the play to perfect his central conceit. The mechanicals here are mixed gender led by Felicity Montagu’s sincere Quince. She is another comic acting genius. We all have our top ten funniest Partridge moments. An honest appraisal will see Lynn feature in many of them. (BTW if you don’t have a Partridge top ten I have to wonder why you are here as clearly you have no sense of humour). Ami Metcalf as Snout, Jamie-Rose Monk (I need to see her one woman show) as Snug, Francis Lovehall as Starveling and Jermaine Freeman as Flute are equally amusing. In both the rehearsal scene and Pyramus and Thisbe, every comic detail has been thought through to leave the real audience in stitches.

Yet, at the same time the lovers, Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones), Hermia, Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) and Lysander (Kit Young) with their asides and silences as they watch the “performance” reveal that not all has changed gender-relationship wise in Athens. It isn’t entirely clear whether the two cheeky chaps, who even had a snog in the forest, are going to rise to their better selves with their new wives as they lay into the generous, if hapless, mechanicals. Nor do they see the tragedy, which they avoided, in the inadvertent comedy presented by the proles. Clever Mr Hytner and clever Mr Shakespeare.

Whilst in the forest the couples roam, romp , argue and sleep as you would expect. But here the set transforms into a magical world. As in the production of Julius Caesar last year, the stage hands and the marshals doing an incredible job of marshalling platforms and people into position. From which the beds, on which the various lovers frolic, and even a bath for Bottom and Theseus to soap up, create context and structure. Add to this the rise and fall of said beds, (a fair few of the cast spend an inordinate of time suspended, kipping), and the acrobatics of the fairies, Peaseblossom (Chipo Kureya), Cobweb (Jay Webb), Moth (Charlotte Atkinson), Mustardseed (Lennin Nelson-McClure, the leader of the troupe) and Bedbug (Rachel Tolzman), and even those with minimal attention spans would surely be satisfied. The teen next to me was a little restless in the first half and needed a minor dressing down from Mum. Come the second half though and she was as gleefully engaged as everyone around me was.

The fairies were a little wobbly on the lines but their movement and music, (Mr Rascal’s Bonkers a particular highlight), more than made up for this. I praise Nick Hytner so highly because he is the captain of the ship, and I know what he can do with Shakespeare, but frankly all his ideas would have come to naught without Bunny Christie’s set, Christine Cunningham’s costumes, Grant Olding’s composition, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound. And very especially Arlene Phillip’s movement. Though this went beyond movement into complex, three dimensional choreography. Just wonderful. And Suzanne Peretz also deserves a massive call-out for her wigs, effects, hair and make-up. I am not sure I would be going put looking like one of the fairies at my age but I would have killed for a make-over from her before hitting a club in the glory days of New Romanticism in 1981. The Tourist and partners’ homemade efforts at the time being exactly that, homemade.

Of course our fairies celebrated gender diversity but David Moorst’s Puck goes one step further, a pangender Pan with flat vowels, perfect comic timing and a nice line in exasperation with his now, female, mistress. And you try delivering Shakespeare whilst executing perfect aerial silks. In fact try either one and see if you get anyway close to Mr Moorst’s virtuosity. This is an actor who has not stood out for me before. He did this time.

Now I can see that if you want pure verse, gossamer wings and a donkey head this might not be the Dream for you. But then I am not sure that Dream is relevant, or mines the multiple layers of Shakespeare’s imagination, in any circumstances. I do not believe that even big Will realised the complexity of interpretation that the Dream affords, all that anxiety and repression of urges, though he probably had a pretty good idea, so it is up to each generation to examine its meanings, as well, of course, to entertain. Mr Hytner, as he always does, takes a view, and works it through to almost perfect effect, but he also never forgets to entertain us. These shadows mend all those who would search for offence in who we want to be.

Allelujah at the Bridge Theatre review ****

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Allelujah

Bridge Theatre, 12th September 2018

Yet again by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing a major London premiere and, worst still given his feckless nature, comments on it, it is as good as over. Mind you the good news is that, as far as I can see, Allelujah was an unqualified success for the Bridge Theatre, playing to full(ish) houses which can only be a good thing. Nick Hytner, the Bridge AD and director here, and Alan Bennett go back a long way. If there was one thing guaranteed to get bums on those plush, comfy(ish) Bridge seats then this was it. Hopefully more people get to see just how marvellous this new theatre is and will return for whatever comes next. If they have any sense at all they will sign up for A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, the new Martin McDonagh play, which opens here in a couple of weeks.

Now I am not sure there is, maybe bar Queen Liz II, a person more qualified to take on the National Treasure mantle than Alan Bennett. You know pretty much exactly what you are going to get when Mr Bennett puts pen to paper. If you love his wry, quizzical artistic voice, then you were never going to be disappointed by this. And plainly there is a pretty wide demographic who do love that voice. But that voice does come with some drawbacks, a few of which were on show in Allelujah. He can be, dare I say it, just that teeniest bit lazy when it comes to getting a laugh. (Mind you any image of louche behaviour in Yorkshire towns is pretty funny I guess). His characters have aged with him and he can veer towards the stereotypical. Overt nostalgia and sentimentality can seep into the text. He doesn’t really go in for plot, preferring to stitch together episodes to tell his story. All in all then sometimes Alan Bennett can be a bit too Alan Bennett.

Yet slowly and surely, underneath all that Bennettism, he makes his points here such that, by the end of Allelujah, I, and I suspect much of the audience, was both moved and angered by the plight of its subject, the NHS, here becoming a metaphor for the breakdown of community and State by decades of neo-liberalism and “market solutions”. The Bethlehem is an august Yorkshire hospital, meeting its “targets” but threatened by closure simply because it is too small and negates the fatuous “economies of scale” that Government demands. The surprisingly hands-on Chair of its trust, Salter, a robust performance from Peter Forbes, isn’t going down without a fight however, recruiting a documentary team (Sam Bond and Nadine Higgin) to the cause. The action is centred on the geriatric ward, highlighting that many of the patients here have nowhere else to go, from an august cast of twelve, dare I say, mature actors including the likes of Julia Foster, Gwen Taylor and Simon Williams. (I bet rehearsals for Alleluhah were a hoot). They sing, they dance, they reminisce, they moan, they have inappropriate conversations.

One of their number, Joe (a cantankerous Jeff Rawle, an AB regular), is paid a visit by his gay son, Colin, (Samuel Barnett), who just happens to be the slimey management consultant who is behind the closure plan. We also see a pair of grasping relatives, the Earnshaws, (Rosie Ede and Duncan Wisbey), who blame the hospital for robbing them of the inheritance, (note to AB, check out taper relief), feckless work experience teen Andy (David Moorst) and various put-upon staff (Manish Gandhi, Richie Hart, Nicola Hughes and Gary Wood).

The crux of AB’s didactic though is revealed by a pair of excellent performances from Sacha Dhawan as Dr Valentine and by the peerless Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist. She has an alarming system to ensure efficiency on her wards. Yet when she delivers her valedictory “farewell” speech there is real poignancy. Deborah Findlay really is a special actor who never seems to miss a step in the roles she takes on nor in the performances she gives. This is no exception.

Yet if you really want to be reminded of just how biting AB can still be when he wants to then look no further than the closing lines, delivered direct to audience from Sacha Dhawan’s student visa immigrant doctor. AB, by his own admission a “blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism”, is angry about the country we have become, and the risks we face, and, wisely, uses its most beloved institution, to vent his spleen. Don’t worry this is no in-yer-face political diatribe, it is AB through and through, and he doesn’t preach, but there is a cumulative rage which takes it well beyond 2012’s People or the autobiographical plays.

Nick Hytner is obviously an expert at presenting AB’s material and creating action out of pure text and here he is immeasurably helped by Bob Crowley’s versatile staging and the choreography of Arlene Philips and her assistant Richard Roe. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a soundtrack album emerging from the play: if you wanted to keep the old folk happy with a “knees up” at Christmas this fits the bill kids.

Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is currently on tout with Matthew Kelly as Auden and David Yelland as Britten and we have Mark Gatiss to look forward to in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse (to be broadcast on NT Live). I don’t think it will be too long before Allelujah gets another outing. It will be interesting to see just in what direction this country travels between now and then.