Music composed and performed by
Costumes created by
Sheila Bird, Mike Brown, Kath Dawes, Dawn Ford, Lyn Hall, Jeannie Lewis, Lisa Lloyd, Michelle Tomas
Set designed by
Mike Brown, Richard Lloyd
By Rob Preston for The Croydon Citizen – Tuesday 2nd August, 2016
Rob Preston finds real magic in the woods of Coulsdon Manor
Theatre Workshop Coulsdon has been putting on annual outdoor productions for a fair few years now, and their A Comedy of Errors back in 2008 remains one of the funniest Shakespeare productions that I have witnessed. In this most special Shakespeare year, director Daniel Ireson gives us that all-time favourite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It is the first of their outdoor productions that I have seen at Coulsdon Manor Hotel. The performance space is set up in a glade between two golf fairways, and as we sit waiting for the play to start we catch sight of fairies and young lovers walking about beyond the trees. We also catch sight of pairs of men enjoying a round of golf, which continues through the first act. As the costuming sets the play in the early twentieth century, with Henley Regatta blazers, driving goggles, and flat caps and knitted tank tops for the mechanicals, the occasional ‘cloch’ of club against ball somehow adds to the experience. So too does the wind through the trees, birdsong, and right near the end, the screech of an owl. Less so however, the tuneless ‘whistle while you work’ of a passing ice cream van. At one point a bird bobs about on the performance space, before taking off above the audience’s heads, and later I spied a bat high up as the sun set. A shame about the bitey gnats and persistent wasps.
But what of the players? We are introduced to the mechanicals first as they amble into view and hug each other. I felt that an opportunity was missed here for something more comical, though Tim Young, who fast became my favourite of this bunch with his adorable lion’s roar, teetered some titters from his audience by giving out Snug the Joiner business cards. Next we meet the fairies, who obsess over a magical flower. And then we meet Theseus and Hippolyta, and the play begins, with a bit of a stutter from a tongue-tied Egeus, but picks up as we meet Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena.
Joy, desperation and unrequited love
With any Shakespeare, I expect every actor to attempt to steal the show, and with this production, it is our love-struck couples who achieve this. They are simply brilliant. Throughout the play they use every trick in the book to convey the mayhem of the merry dance on which the fairies magically lead them. Although the violence sometimes seems excessive, particularly as the mechanicals are also employing it, albeit less successfully, the disgust, joy, desperation, and unrequited love all conveyed by the four’s facial expressions make their big scene near the start of act two the show’s highlight. A special mention for Indianna Scorziello as little, but very fierce, Hermia.
Like the lovers, the fairy royalty make good use of the space’s two podiums and the tree stump bed between them. Their costumes are impressive, particularly Mike Brown as a ‘Herne the Hunter’-like King Oberon, whose stage presence is undeniable, and floral-coloured Rachel Handler who plays Queen Titania with regal poise. Hannah Montgomery is our Puck, and she is not the first female I have seen cast in this iconic role. I expect more than mere skipping about from any Puck. I expect cheekiness, impishness, trickery, and a connection formed with the audience. Hannah has a good delivery, and a believable chemistry with her Oberon, but all too often she seems to have fallen into the trap of ‘I am a girl playing a boy’, and so become panto, like a thigh-slapping Peter Pan.
The other iconic character is of course Bottom, here played by Richard Lloyd. He is famously given the head of an ass, and the one big mistake for me in this show was plonking a full donkey’s head atop the actor, muffling his lines somewhat behind a head whose mouth does not move. A half-mask with ears would allow continued expression, and I don’t know if it’s the northern accent which most of the mechanicals adopt, or his projection, but something of his interpretation comes across as aggressive. I like my Bottom to be somewhat less forceful with his insistence that he play every part of the play within the play that closes the show.
This, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, can often be played with little humour wrung from it, but here, all six wring every drop out of their comedy flannel, with Connor Nestor displaying the nerves of his Peter Quince, along with an ever increasing failure to keep his impatience capped. Funniest however is Rupert Miles as Flute, who is cast as heroine Thisbe, and plays her hilariously. The bobbing seagull secured to the top of the wall that separates the lovers was a sweet comic touch.
All in all, a very enjoyable version of the play, and certainly the most comprehensible that I have seen in a good while. Microphones, speakers and lights are hidden well in the foliage, so as not to spoil any magic conjured by this clear speaking and dynamic cast. A very worthy addition to 2016’s Shakespeare celebrations.