Sunday, 13 October 2013

Memories of several Bottoms

Sheridan Smith, David Walliams and fairies
On Friday evening, I trotted along to Londons West End down to see David Walliams’s Bottom.

Yes, yes – I know. I know it’s been done before, but apart from one tweet, not by me. So I’m afraid that you, dear readers, have to put up with it being done here.

The fourth production in the inaugural season of the Michael Grandage Company sees A Midsummer Night’s Dream playing to packed houses in the West End – and the main reason for all the bottoms on seats is less that it’s the Bard and more the star casting.

Walliams has been cast as Bottom, while Sheridan Smith takes on the traditional dual roles of Titania and Hippolyta.

The former brings the pulling power of Little Britain to the production, and has been directed to camp up the part for all he’s worth.

Smith brings with her the success of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, plus stints on the Royle Family and Jonathan Creek, and has been directed in such a way that you wouldn’t know about that televisual CV unless you recognised her name or checked out the programme.

My own first Dream was way back in September 1976 at the Bolton Octagon, when a seat in the gallery cost just 50p – the ticket is still pasted into an old scrapbook.

It had been our introduction to Shakespeare a year earlier at school (when I’d read Bottom in class) and this was the first live production of a play by the Bard that Id seen.

Then in April 1979, it was the Fairfield High School for Girls annual production (tickets 60p – there’s inflation for you), with me donning something like a sackcloth costume as Peter Quince; a performance that the local paper described as being “acted with authority”.

Actually, what I remember most was being able to say “bloody” twice in a speech – in front of the headmistress.

It was the one performance my maternal grandmother ever saw me in, and she and my mother decided that I had a likeness to one of my mother’s brothers. I’m not sure I’ve recovered yet.

But back to that Octagon production. Wilfred Harrison, who was also joint director, played Bottom. The notes in that scrapbook only mention his performance, but although this is an ensemble piece, the Mechanicals are what grabs the attention of most audiences, precisely because of the timeless comedy.

In 1991, for instance, Roy Hudd’s Bottom is just about the only thing I remember of a production at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – apart from the less-than-brilliant weather.

When it's not raining, it’s a play that is superbly suited to outside staging.

In 1987, the Duke’s Playhouse in Lancaster staged its first promenade production in the city’s Williamson Park, around and including the Ashton Memorial as a backdrop.

Andy Serkis as Lysander in Lancaster. Puck to the left
That Dream, with a cast that included, as Lysander, Andy Serkis – now best known as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films – was utterly magical.

Of the ones I’ve seen, it remains my favourite production. The lovers were strongly done even if the Mechanicals didn’t make a major impression in the memory bank: Puck was the stand-out, although unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the actor who played him in full faun get up.

But back to the here and now, and Michael Grandage’s new production.

It’s played at F1 pace – just two hours for the whole play to unwind – and that has some benefits and some pitfalls.

Some of the languorous sense of the poetry is lost by charging at it like this – I was mightily relieved when Puck’s closing speech was allowed its necessary time – but it also works well in particular places, not least in the chaotic row between the four lovers in the forest as Oberon and Puck looks on.

Indeed, what Grandage and his company have done is remove any reverential attitude and emphasised the play’s physical comedy – the majority of which is quite clearly there in the text.

And they also haven’t ducked the point that it’s largely not about lurve, but sex – certainly in terms of Titania and Bottom.

Elizabethan audiences would have known, for instance, that an ass had a large penis, so Bottom’s transformation into just such an animal, combined with Titania’s awakening under the spell, is quite clearly about lust.*

Just imagine what would happen if all those bored schoolchildren being introduced to Shakespeare via this play were told that it was about sex?

Anyway, this is very good fun.

And more than that, it was thoroughly enjoyed by an audience that included a great many people who clearly don’t go to the theatre often – and most certainly not for Shakespeare.

The production has had some brief moments of song and dance inserted – and some snippets of pop classics – and where used, they work.

Gavin Fowler as Puck
While the mechanicals are camper than the proverbial row of tents, the fairies are a group of crusty hippies with a bit of edge.

And the lovers are far less insipid and boring than they can be.

Of the cast, Smith was excellent – all husky voice and powerful allure.

Walliams gets to nick the show – there’s more ham on display than in a Spanish deli, and anyone older than a teen will wonder if they’re seeing the reincarnation of Frankie Howerd at one point in particular – but again, in the context of this kind of production, it works.

Of the rest of a good ensemble, special mentions for Gavin Fowler as Puck – he moves superbly – Katherine Kingsley as a fabulously feisty Helena and Pádraic Delaney as Oberon/Theseus.

Christopher Oram’s sets work well, as do his costumes. In particular, I liked Puck’s trousers, which tallied with the attire of the rest of the fairies, but, in the side fringe, just hinted at a faun’s furry legs.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp – more Carry On than delicate rom-com – but it’s about time that the Dream got this sort of shake-it-up treatment to rescue it from any perception of it being fey, rather infantile and ‘safe’.

Finally, just to note that we considered ourselves lucky in finding – and being able to get a table without booking – Piazza, an Italian restaurant that almost backs onto the theatre.

An independent amid the mass of chains in the vicinity, it did a very pleasant pomodoro (according to The Other Half) and a very nice diavola pizza for me – excellent, doughy base, with fresh tomato sauce, spiced minced beef, red onions, pepperoni, mozzarella and green jalapeños to get the endorphins flowing.

Really not pricy for London, with very pleasant service. That’s one to remember.

* For which insight I thank Jill Betjeman of Lancaster.

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