Hamlet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

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Alan Mahon as Hamlet. Production image by Mark Douet.

Any production of Hamlet where Polonius stands two feet away from my front row seat in the round at the Stephen Joseph and speaks one of the most famous lines in the play directly to me- “though this be madness yet there’s method in’t”- gets my vote. This production by the Tobacco Factory theatre company works a treat- it was a very good place for the young people who were lined up along the back row to start. It is clear, fast and well edited and it zipped along in the small space like a thriller. The company know how to use the round to full effect and it showed.

Alan Mahon has had very good reviews for his performance in the title role and I am happy to add to them. He reminded me that Hamlet is young, naive and untried- the actor is only 23 himself and it is unusual and refreshing to see someone so young in the part. By chance I had just watched two great Hamlets, Simon Russell-Beale and Adrian Lester, talking about playing the part and they had agreed that Hamlet was naive. I hadn’t thought about this properly before and then the very next day along came a Hamlet who showed me exactly what they meant. More than ever the death of this particular sweet prince was the loss of someone with potential, someone who might have done great things. He is clever but he has been too busy studying rather than developing social skills. He doesn’t really understand about the unpleasant realities of the world until they kick him the face and he is forced to face up to them- a steep learning curve that he first tries to avoid and ultimately doesn’t survive. Alan Mahon also worked on the cuts made with the director, Andrew Hilton, so some of that fast moving thriller quality that I saw is partly down to him. I am glad that he was given his chance. To see the soliloquies spoken by Hamlet alone in the centre of a small space was very moving. Some of the quiet, thoughtful qualities that can be there in Hamlet were not so evident but that was not what was being played so I didn’t mind. Every Hamlet is different- especially the really good ones- and that’s what keeps you coming back.

There was good support from the rest of the cast too. I particularly liked Laertes- I always do- Callum McIntyre was suitably dynamic and good looking and the sword fight at the end was terrific. Isabella Marshall was a heartfelt and gentle Ophelia and I enjoyed the fatherly qualities that Alan Coveney brought to his Horatio, who was older than usual. I felt that there can be more to Claudius and Gertrude than we were shown by Paul Currier and Julia Hills but I am not complaining about anyone in the cast. The speed of the production and the cuts perhaps made it harder for the characters who surround Hamlet to make their mark. There are always gains and losses in any approach.

I don’t often praise directors- unless it is to say that I am glad that they have not done too much- but I was full of admiration for the detailed work that Andrew Hilton has done to make this production so clearly told and speedy and give us the Hamlet that he and Alan Mahon wanted. The whole show was almost entirely without props or furniture and it ran like clockwork. I also had the pleasure of a close up view of some very beautiful Elizabethan costumes designed by Max Johns- a more unusual sight in a production of Hamlet than you might think. I was very happy.

Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 11-06-15

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Daisy Whalley as Juliet and Jack Wharrier as Paris. Production photograph by Toby Farrow.

Romeo and Juliet is not my favourite Shakespeare play. The first half is great- a fast paced, exciting portrait of a society which is deeply fractured and dysfunctional- but in the second half the writing loses momentum and becomes just a bit self indulgent. Having said that there is a lot that can be done with it so that even someone like me leaves the theatre both moved and shaken. The Tobacco Factory production comes as close to reconciling the two halves of the play as I have seen.

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Oliver Hoare as Mercutio. Production photograph by Toby Farrow.

There are some excellent performances. Romeo (Paapa Essiedu) and Juliet (Daisy Whalley) are young, naïve and urgent, just as they should be. I liked the way that the Capulet’s marriage was laid bare in just a few pointed moments along the way by Fiona Sheehan and Timothy Knightly. The older members of this society have a lot to answer for, they are the carefully hidden and varnished reason why their young people are running amok and this is clearly shown. Nothing they do or say is quite real. Their souls have been sold a long time ago in favour of pleasure and shallow self indulgence. Those few decent minded young people, like Benvolio and Paris (who might well have made Juliet very happy if she had never seen Romeo) are on a hiding to nothing. Benvolio is a nice part- I usually end up falling for him just a little bit and I did it again. It was good to be close enough to see every detail of Callum McIntyre’s performance. I think he will have a good career ahead of him. I would have liked a stronger Tybalt and clearer verse speaking from time to time and I’m not sure that I was entirely happy with what the production did with the nurse as a character (as distinct from the performance) but all the acting was honest and heartfelt. There were two performances which I absolutely loved, Oliver Hoare as Mercutio and Paul Currier as Friar Laurence. Mercutio is a fascinating character- a potentially dangerous lost soul- and that kind of presence is a very difficult thing for an actor to pull off. I believed in him absolutely and in his relationship with Benvolio particularly- someone who knows him all too well. It was also a very fine stage death made real at close quarters. Paul Currier was as good a Friar Laurence as I ever hope to see, a liberal, well meaning priest who may well have had a murky past. His pain and guilt in the final scene were electrifying to watch and lifted the end of the play. Someone needs to care as the older generation are almost certainly going to paper over the cracks again whatever platitudes they may come out with and he did.

The direction by Andrew Hilton is fast paced. The fights and the violence are really convincing- even in a small space where there is an audience on all sides and nowhere to hide. The costumes are very strong- Fiona Sheehan in particular had some wonderful clothes to wear- and with little set to look at and gain information from this really mattered. The stage design worked beautifully in the small space of the Stephen Joseph, a simple working Merry Go Round which could be taken apart to provide weapons and have a shiny surface revealed underfoot for the Capulet’s decadent masked ball. I love that kind of clever, minimal design that gives you nothing unnecessary and makes every aspect earn its keep.

This was a very clearly thought out account of the play with some strong performances. I always enjoy the Tobacco Factory’s visits to Scarborough. They are one of the best small scale Shakespeare companies in the country and we are lucky to see them so far from their home.

As You Like It. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 08-05-14

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Dorothy Myer-Bennett as Rosalind and Daisy May as Celia. Production photograph by Mark Douet.

As You Like it is a play full of charm and wit, a romantic comedy for the turn of the sixteenth century which still works for us today. People don’t change. It ends with four weddings, although we are spared a funeral. This is a story which is never going to end badly. The delight is in watching it play out knowing that it will all come right in the end. Rosalind is always going to work her magic and claim the happy ending that goodness deserves and doesn’t always get in everyday life. Wickedness will be repented of, tangles will be unravelled and love will have its way with music and dancing thrown in for good measure. People have always liked to see that played out in a story for them and they always will. It has some of the most engaging characters Shakespeare ever wrote and thankfully it is also shot through with enough darkness to prevent it becoming too saccharin. Above all, in Rosalind and Celia, it has one of the most delightful portraits of female friendship that has ever been written. It’s a joy.

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory give us a production which is fast and full of fun. The central relationship between Rosalind and Celia is just beautifully done. Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Daisy May have a real rapport on stage and it was delightful to watch. Rosalind needs to have both authority, humour and charm, not an easy combination to find, but Dorothea Myer-Bennett has all three. Rosalind is someone who you would follow and look up to, a person of real depth and grace, who also has a sense of fun. It is a great part and any young actress will think herself lucky to have the chance to play it. I am glad to have seen Dorothea Myer-Bennett take the role and run with it- she is lovely. Celia is a character that I have a real soft spot for and I loved Daisy May’s performance. I doubt that I will ever see that part done so well again. Her open mouthed incredulity at Rosalind’s audacity was both funny and believable and her love for her friend was obvious. It is a character which really needs a clever actress as Celia observes more than she speaks and has to convey thoughts without being given words to articulate them and it certainly found one.

My other favourite character in As You Like It is Jaques. He is an important voice in the play, reminding us that there is sadness, mortality and grief in the world even though we are not being asked to focus on it in this particular story. He is a world weary, clever, thoughtful observer who is left to travel on, without being allowed a happy ending of his own, a counterpoint to the youth and charm at the centre of the play. Paul Currier did everything that I could wish for with him. I could see the thoughts as they crossed his mind and that is a great compliment.

I quite fell for Jack Wharrier as Orlando, which is good as you wouldn’t want Rosalind to have a man who is less than she deserves. They will be a good match. I also liked Christopher Bianchi’s performance- quite a subtle and technical one- as both Dukes, Frederick and Senior. This doubling of the two courts also involved some clever direction from Andrew Hilton which speeded the play along in a very satisfying way.

It’s a very long time since I last saw As You like It. I am so glad that Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory were able to bring it all the way up to Yorkshire for us. They clearly love the Stephen Joseph and used the space very cleverly in a way that not every visiting company is able to do. We need them to come back next year for a third visit.

Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 30-05-13

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Piers Wehner as Proteus and Jack Bannell as Valentine.
Photograph: Toby Farrow. Farrows Creative.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is an early Shakespeare play, full of charm and youth. It is where Shakespeare tests out a lot of the ideas that he will have a deeper look at in his later plays and the chance to see a production of it is a rare treat as it isn’t often performed. There is a real lightness, a delight in wordplay and a sense of excitement in the fast developing English language. There is darkness too, love is not to be taken lightly or played with, but it is a comedy and nobody in it is to be judged too harshly. The quartet of young people at its heart mean well, even Proteus who loses sight of his own better nature when he falls in love with his best friend’s Valentine’s great love Sylvia and forgets his betrothed Lydia, and they will learn from experience as we watch. The two young heroines are both portraits of constancy and good sense who have a lot to teach the young men. It also has some lovely comedy which is still completely accessible to us when it is performed well. Having seen it done beautifully in my favourite theatre (the Swan in Stratford) back in 1981 I knew what a treat it could be so my ticket was bought early and I was excited, not least because it is the only play where Shakespeare casts a dog. I do mean casts a dog too- not just that one of the characters has a dog with him on the end of a lead. It was the first visit of Bristol’s famous Tobacco Factory company to the SJT and I have never seen them perform so that was exciting too. A ten pound Thursday matinee ticket has never seemed better value.

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Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Julia.
Photograph: Toby Farrow. Farrows Creative.

I wasn’t disappointed- it was all there. Sometimes you can tell when a theatre company is really enjoying themselves and this one was. The actors were relishing being able to be within clear sight and touching distance of the audience. Playing in the round at the Stephen Joseph is like being in the centre of a vortex, it can be unforgiving if you are not good enough but when it works it is magical. The company have never played there before but a lot of thought and understanding had clearly gone into their preparation for their few performances and they used the space beautifully. Close up (those of us on the front row were able to hold props and feel the swish of the costumes) their excitement was obvious. We were drawn in, spoken to directly, and carried along with them as they took out all the toys in the new playbox that they had been given and shared them with us. Like the play itself it was absolutely charming to watch. It made the play very clear and easy to connect with and the verse speaking was just as clear and direct. The redesign for the round was simple and pared back but the set worked perfectly there and the Edwardian setting worked perfectly too. The music by John Telfer was well judged, light, airy and carefree. I particularly liked the Milan number where the cafe was set out to the accompaniment of a choreographed song.

The performances were all well judged, understated and nicely detailed. The two gentlemen of the title, Jack Bannell and Piers Wehner as Valentine and Proteus gave a very believable portrait of male friendship and were nicely contrasted with each other. Valentine had a wonderfully moving moment when he was in despair and I managed not to dislike Proteus for all his faults which is just as it should be and not an easy thing for an actor to pull off. The two women, Julia and Sylvia ( Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Lisa Kay) were just lovely. An idealised portrait of faithful and honest womanhood written by a young man with a romantic heart but given a modern spin by the production which provided a nice extra kick to the ending and made sure that they didn’t become too sweet. Among the smaller parts I liked Alan Coveney’s performance as Eglamore very much. It is always a pleasure to see a fully rounded performance in a small part. Marc Geoffrey was very engaging and fast witted as Valentine’s servant Speed and he had a great voice too.

The direction by Andrew Hilton is sure footed and clever and there is no greater tribute to it than the way that the production was able to succeed so well in a very different space to the one where it began life.

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Lollio as Crab, Chris Donnelly as Launce and Marc Geoffrey as Speed.
Photograph: Toby Farrow. Farrows Creative.

Anyway……. what about that dog? Chris Donnelly had a wonderful time as Launce, Proteus’ servant and made the most of his opportunities to work with the audience. At one point I got to hold his stick. It is a peach of a part, maybe the only Shakespearean comedy role that still works in exactly the same way now as it did when it was first performed. It is also, of course, a double act with his dog Crab, and for that to work the dog also needs to know what it is doing. The job of the dog is simple. It has to stay calm, laid back and lugubrious whatever is being said about it while taking any chance it can to steal the scene from it’s master. Crab was played by a nine year old labrador  Lollio who did all this without missing a cue even though he was in a strange space. He was a nice natured, gentle, middle aged lad a world away from the dog that Launce was describing. Perfect casting in other words. His eyes never left Launce and there was a nice moment when he was being complained at and he wagged his tail gently and glanced at a member of the audience sitting next to him. Launce immediately gave up the lead to the man. “Here- you have him.” I have no idea whether that was in the script but if it wasn’t it should have been and there is a long tradition of improvisation in Shakespeare’s comedy characters which goes right back to the earliest days. Will Kemp would have done exactly the same.

It was a great pleasure to see the Tobacco Factory company at the SJT. I really hope that they come back and as they enjoyed it so much I have a feeling that they probably will.