As You Like It at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch review ***

As You Like It

Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, 26th August 2019

I don’t think I was alone in praising the first initiative in the collaboration between Public Acts and the National Theatre last year which brought amateur and professional creatives together to produce a piece of large scale community theatre. That was Shakespeare’s (and George Wilkins’s) Pericles. Just marvellous.

Well this was the second effort. Shakespeare again. This time in collaboration with East London’s finest the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, masterminded by Emily Lim (who now heads up Public Arts and who directed Pericles), directed by QTH’s AD Douglas Rintoul, different amateur actors and partner groups drawn from the local community and across London, and with an adaptation, music and lyrics courtesy of Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery who created the work for the Public Theater in New York.

Just five professional actors, and more importantly singers, Beth Hinton-Lever as a mildly sardonic, rather than full on depressive, Jaques, Rohan Reckford as the overweening Duke Senior, Linford Johnson as less heroic man’s man and more perplexed metrosexual, Orlando, especially in the presence of Ebony Jonelle’s plucky Rosalind, and Vedi Roy as the impish Touchstone (who has a lot less to say than normal). Which handed plenty of opportunity to the community players. Too numerous to mention I am afraid as, apart from hacking away at big Will’s plot and verse and adding in copious song, music, dance and performance, the named cast list and chorus was expanded well beyond standard dimensions. A good thing too. Having said that I would draw attention to the contributions of Kayode Ajayi as Oliver, Malunga Yese as Silvia, Harleigh Stenning as Andy and, especially, Marjorie Agwang as Celia. If they were nervous they didn’t show it and they, as everyone on stage did, put their all into the performances.

Now you Shakespeare buffs will probably have worked out that the characters above do not all accord with the usual dramatis personae. As You Like It is ripe for gender switching, after all that is pretty much the point of the play, and the creative team didn’t hold back here. Indeed inclusivity, as well as love and forgiveness, was the name of the game and the reason why As You Like It was chosen for the project. And, having alighted on these themes, no-one involved held back. Moving and uplifting for sure but it rather left poor Shakespeare behind. This may not be big Will’s greatest play, or even comedy, or pastoral, or whatever you want to call it, but, in their subtracting and adding, basically ending up with a musical, the adapting team left very little of the Bard remaining. And, to be polite, the prose that is added to simplify and move the plot on was, shall we say, workmanlike. A shame in some ways because AYLI is a crowd pleaser even when left alone. Still, in most cases the songs that Ms Taub has created to amplify the key moments really did work, lyrically and, more often than not, musically.

Which meant that I, and the audience, had a great time. Especially with the giant chorus pieces. It’s just that the spectacle wasn’t quite as successful as Pericles as a piece of theatre, independent of its worthy purpose. Even so I look forward to where Public Arts goes next. If Shakespeare again I guess a Dream, or R&J, though a Merry Wives might be fun.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Park Theatre review ****

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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Park Theatre, 13th September 2018

Never has the truism “a hard act to follow” been more apposite than with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and Jane Horrocks. Jim Cartwright wrote the part for her after he heard her extraordinary vocal mimicry in rehearsal and, after transferring stage performance to screen, this is what I guess she will be remembered for. Or maybe Bubble. In Ab Fab. Either way she is a very fine actor as her recent turn in Instructions for Correct Assembly at the Royal Court reiterated (Instructions For Correct Assembly at the Royal Court Theatre review ****).

That is not to say that there haven’t been plenty of revivals since the original in 1992. And there are probably tons of amateur singers with a decent pair of lungs who have also had a go. Jim Cartwright, as this, and maybe even more so Road, shows, has a natural dramatic gift. Maybe he hasn’t quite matched the brilliance of his first decade but his lines are just so good that is is difficult for cast and director not to entertain in his plays. Squeezing every last drop out of his stories however does require real talent such as that delivered by the likes of Lemn Sissay, Michelle Fairley, June Watson and Liz White, with director John Tiffany, in last year’s Royal Court revival of Road. (road at the Royal Court Theatre review ****). This didn’t quite scale those heights but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

The calling card of this production, from new company The Land of Green Ginger at the Park, was having LV and Mari played by real life Mother and Daughter Sally George and Rafaella Hutchinson. You will likely know Sally George from the telly but she has an illustrious stage CV as well and Ms Hutchinson, as well as following Mum onto the small screen, has singing experience. I was certainly struck by her acting as LV, particularly early on in the more vulnerable passages, but her singing mimicry, notably in the lower registers, was a little more variable. Mum however was as brassily vulgar as you like, alternately grating and sympathetic, dignity never entirely crumbling. With fine support from Kevin McMonagle as Ray Say, Shaun Prendergast as Mr Boo, Linford Johnson as Billy and, especially, Jamie-Rose Monk as Sadie, (who, remember, is allowedT no real voice), this was a very solidly directed (Tom Latter) rendition of this emotionally direct play. Jacob Hughes’s albeit very literal set continued the run of fine realisations in this space.

I would venture to suggest that this narrative of linguistically and culturally rich, but emotionally and economically deprived working class women, which is in a sense what both LV and Mari are, trying to make themselves heard above the men that prey on them, isn’t terrifically fashionable in dramatic circles right now. Playwrights seem more focussed on broader identity and global catastrophe than on class. A shame in some ways. For when it works a punch to the gut, laced with humour as hear, can be so much more memorable than a dry tap on the brain.