Time waits, slumped like a bored teenager at a bus stop. The stage illuminates into intense, lonely pastels. The players filter in, fresh faced and besuited like career politicians hitting power too soon. Music peaks like a crashing plane. "A sad tale is best for winter," chirps Mamillus, whose few lines, rough deal, and bitter end are unflinchingly portrayed by an eerily youthful Tom Cawte. This is hardball, intelligent watching: the programme namechecks Bowlby; attachment, abandonment. Orlando James as Leontes is emotionally labile, excitable, intermittently explosive; his queen (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) is luminously static, frozen by the conflicting needs of partner and child. The court walk on eggshells, while Joy Richardson as Paulina is their deliciously defiant housekeeper/social worker. After the suffocating intensity of broken family life, the Bohemian second half is a rush of fresh air.
Cheek by Jowl offer education packs for schools, and here their approachable style appeals most to the younger audiences, with sequins, sparkly shoes, catfights and Autolycus riotously reimagined by Ryan Donaldson as a cut-rate conman party DJ in stained jeans. All too soon, his squat guitar stylings and daytime television pastiches are set aside, poor Perdita (played with iron and fire by Eleanor McLoughlin) is forced into Wallis Simpson-style fancy dress, and the simple staging - a single blank shipping container which morphs into a crypt, ship, barn, emits the voice of the gods, and gives birth to thunder, corpses, even the anticipated bear - returns to darkness. It is a powerful box of tricks, even to the final, ghastly music-box tinkle that chimerically transforms cast and characters back into the automata of the gods, one last creepy turn from Cawte reminding us not everyone is saved.
Emotionally exhausting, exhilarating and ultimately uplifting, Shakespeare's special-effects masterpiece is not let down (and does not let up) for an instant.