Toby Manley plays a super-posh version of Shakespeare’s super villain in Antic Disposition’s new production. The crystal- clear diction is a delight, the suave air (and a bow tie) adding to a new take on the despicable king that is well constructed and carefully delivered. The description of Richard as an “intelligencer” is the key, with Manley securing the role’s infamous charm and emanating an air that he might work for the secret service. As a double agent, of course – he’s almost your cachinnating villain at one point. And I’ve wanted to use that word for ages. Thank you Mr Manley.
This Richard makes for a great show. It’s a shame that those around him seem a little too foolish. A group of Ya Ya Yorkists, with a Noel Coward dressing gown and pearls, if not furs, are too easy to overcome. And several performances are too broad and unconvincing as a result. But Manley is frequently restrained (another reason he stands out), suggesting the Bullingdon Club with subtlety. And Jess Nesling impresses as a Queen Elizabeth who just might refrain from falling for Richard’s plans. At the opposite extreme, Joe Eyre’s exaggerated performance works well. As with Richard, his Buckingham gives the sense of power played out as a public school boys’ game.
A modern dress setting is made much of by the directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero, the latter of whom also designed the production, but their clever touches seen unnecessary. And those aiming at humour – Richmond’s yoga and the Mayor of London carrying a Starbucks cup with Boris written on it – don’t deliver. The music, composed by James Burrows, doesn’t help either, with a confusing mix, close to pastiche, arriving abruptly. The frustration is that Horslen and Risebero don’t need any of this – these guys really know what they are doing.
The cuts made to the play are sensible. The production is a model of clarity. And the doubling up on parts is well done. Although a touring company, the performers seem at home in this magnificent space and the traverse staging is handled superbly. The simple device of having Richard’s victims band together – as a body watching throughout the play and attacking him during his dream on the eve of battle (including great work from lighting designer Tom Boucher) – is spine tingling. The disparate group of those who have crossed him is led by Louise Templeton, who does fine work as spectral Queen Margaret, recruiting the dead to her side one by one. Take away some fussy touches and this is good, solid work that combines into a strong production.
Antic Disposition’s coup, of staging its new piece in this historic banqueting space, is just one good reason to see this show. This is the very venue Shakespeare’s lightest comedy – with its two set of twins causing havoc through repeatedly mistaken identities – is first recorded as having been performed in (check out the Tudor portraits on the back wall). But the production has further merits. A spin is provided by Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s film, with action set in a hotel. The Dromio characters don bellboy outfits, the Duke is a gangster and there’s a band thrown in. You certainly get your money’s worth.
It’s a cast of actor musicians led by a Marilyn Monroesque courtesan (Susie Broadbent), which adds immeasurably to the show. I’d happily have heard the numbers for longer. Delivery of the lines is a touch slow on the part of joint directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero. Maybe there are too many ideas crammed in? The action is speedy, though, with lots of madcap running around. And there’s a nun with a ukulele – never a bad thing. Smaller roles blossom: Doctor Pinch becomes a magician performing at the hotel (Philip Mansfield is the beneficiary of this role) while the merchant (that bit with the gold chain that can drag on) is rendered gloriously shrill by Paul Sloss – the character is described as a “shrew” so why not.
The leads are athletic, with both Antipholus roles even looking alike: William de Coverly and Alex Hooper dash about full of righteous indignation and further impress by hinting how their characters’ different life stories would have made them very different men. In the servant roles of Dromio, Keith Higinbotham and Andrew Venning get even more laughs, vying with one another for the comedy edge. I’d suggest Higinbotham wins – by a chin strap – if only because Venning labours his funniest scene (although his trumpet playing is superb).
Ellie Anne Lowe holds her own against this male quartet, amiably aided by Giovanna Ryan. There’s less attempt to adapt these ladies of Syracuse, but the roles are well thought out. Love is the theme, after all there are three married couples at the end, and Lowe makes her marriage convincing. If the whole production is more romantic than raucous, it’s a fair price for such charm.
Benefitting from a fantastic location, the show that marks theatre company Antic Disposition’s tenth birthday serves to commemorate World War I as well as the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt. If that sounds like a lot for even Henry V to take on, rest assured that the play is neatly manipulated and finely produced.
Joint directors Ben Horslen and Jon Risebero have a group of convalescing British and French soldiers putting on the play during a break from the trenches. You might question the efficacy of this as a therapy – it’s hardly It Ain’t Half Hot Mum material – but impressive gains result. Poignancy comes from the prologue’s excuse for a “crooked figure” performing – these men are injured. And there’s a lovely sense of complicity, with pretend fumbling at the start and lots of addresses to the audience. The play’s female roles benefit from the backdrop, especially the courtship scene with Floriane Andersen, whose character we also see as a nurse. Another particularly strong moment (pictured above) has the soldier playing the role of Bardolph breaking down as he faces his execution, performed painfully well by James Murfitt.
Freddie Stewart shows exciting promise in the title role. His youth is a slight barrier when it comes to Prince Hal’s transformation into a responsible royal; it’s difficult to imagine him having time for “greener days”. But this plotline is downplayed and we enjoy a virile and appealing King under pressure, juggling bluster and humanity, while examining his duties.
The play is presented in traverse, with an accomplished mobility that shows this is a team used to touring. With the church’s acoustics, the whole production sounds sublime – it’s a genuine aural treat. And it’s easy to understand the addition of well-performed songs by George Butterworth to poems by A E Housman, although this extra layer to the show brings it close to overload. There’s a surfeit of ideas here – and all credit to the ambition of Horslen and Risebero. But the show – well worth seeing – aims for more bite and emotional impact than it has time to deliver.