Last night's performance of Andrew Barsby's new comedy by an eclectic cast from Oxford Theatre Guild was 'a riddle wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma'. Yes the play was a cavalcade, a formal procession of people, superficially embodying a number of dramatic stereotypes: the lovey, the stroppy teenager, the lonely writer and one of the older theatre traditions, a gender-switching page boy. However, the real dramatic and comedic interplay was between the many layers of persona dramatis wrapped up in the piece like a matryoshka doll. After all we were watching today's ordinary people taking on dramatic roles in a play about an amateur company putting on a play set in medieval times and written in Victorian times. And it was these threads of dramatic personae and their stratification which brought this comedy to life.
Tim Eyres was the very embodiment of the failed classical actor with pretensions – after bedecking himself resplendently as the Abbott he spent all his spare time on the boards avidly studying The Stage – and delivered all his lines in glorious plummy tones with impeccable timing in contrast to Matthew Blurton's more diffident and sensitive delivery. However the piece was professionally led and held together by Fleur Yerbury-Hodgson as the medieval play's director, Maggie, and effectively the play's narrator and commentator aside to the audience.
The play contained elements of farce but was not a rip roaring slapstick a la Jo Orton but embodied a more thoughtful exploration of character and motive exposing their weaknesses and foibles through the humour of the play, more a kin to Alan Ayckbourn. During the course of the dramatized rehearsals we learn more of the individual characters involved in the production, their interaction, motivations, hopes and fears and in particular about the tangled web love spins.
Within the production there are many obviously funny jokes and comedic and theatrical structures – not least in the denouement. At times the audience tittered, chortled and howled with laughter when recognising the use and subversion of standard theatrical comedic forms: the play within a play as per the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream; the reversed role reversal (Poppy has to play the page boy); improvised costumes (Martin wears a modified gift/carrier bag as his monk's cowl) and make do and mend props. Eloise Sheffield as Poppy develops a humorous ongoing relationship with a polystyrene column which she is responsible (crudely) for interpreting as amongst other things a tree and a maypole. There is the now ubiquitous offstage bear and his -non precision lurking-, the standard voices off character with the director's calls to the lighting and sound man and the 'Duck and Pullet' in joke amongst the cast.
The presentation, performance and set are uncluttered which allows for the easy interplay of some complex and convoluted ideas: spiritual versus temporal; thought versus deed and posturing and pretension versus the real to name but a few. But the heart and humour of the play(s) lies in the development and interplay between characters. As such A Cavalcade of Fools is a perfect mirror to life – or at least life as we know it in amateur dramatic terms – with riddles humorously unravelled, mysteries explored and always the hint of an entertaining enigma. This gentle humour and warm characterisation wrap the big ideas in the play in smaller, comprehensible, human terms and left the audience touched by the wry humour and warmed by the human frailty exposed in the comedy.
This play – running at the Wesley Memorial Church until 1st October - is the perfect antidote to the Cavalcade of Fools currently parading across our news screens and with great humour illuminates the human frailty at the heart of our existence.