It’s that time of year again, when if you want a night out at the theatre in Oxford you have the choice of Shakespeare, Shakespeare or more Shakespeare. Or you could go and have a really good laugh ... at an alternative Shakespeare play.
All’s Well That Ends As You Like It purports to be the recently discovered last work of the Bard (“A Lamentable Comedie and Hy?terickal Tragedie”), but is in fact a hilarious low-tech Shakespearean version of The Play That Goes Wrong. For what it lacks by comparison in terms of expensive fall-apart sets, it more than makes up for in witty satirical side-swiping at the Shakespeare phenomenon, and in good honest slapstick comedy.
An ardently, reverentially Shakespeare-loving director (Jack Blackburn) is bringing this newly discovered play to the stage for the first time when suddenly his lead actor drops dead. Nonetheless, in time-honoured fashion, the Show Must Go On and for the next 50 minutes the hapless cast make every desperate and ill-advised attempt to continue the performance despite one catastrophe after another.
The show abounds with lovely comedic writing by Joel Lipsom. The nameless Disposable Servant (Jacob Griffiths), who would rather be in a Broadway show, sings a very funny version of 'Tomorrow'. The audience lapped up the occasional jibe at their expense (“At least we’re blessed with a really stupid audience”, “How do you know?”, “They’re still in their seats”). At one point I was afraid they were going to drag an audience member onto the stage to take the place of the dead actor, but rest assured – there is no danger of involuntary audience participation in this show! You are quite safe to sit in the front row... if you trust their swordsmanship!
For me, the most inspired sequence was the moment of discovery of two lovers caught in flagrante delicto. This was painfully prolonged and prolonged and prolonged as one actor made every effort to communicate the necessary forgotten lines to a propped up puppet-corpse via a series of increasingly hysterical charades – pure comedy gold.
The actors all brought their characters to life with great aplomb, from the leading lady determined to deliver her five-page monologue no matter what (Efi Gauthier) to the reluctant techie dragged on stage and literally beaten into submission (James Carter). Benjamin Kybett did a really convincing job of playing dead, and Jonathan Eddyshaw was reassuringly human as the one anxious actor worried that they really ought to stop and call an ambulance. Personally, the one who had me in stitches most often was Emma Slattery, as the humble support actor called upon to play multiple parts and fill in all the gaps; from striking artistic attitudes as a ghost, racing through the distillation of two-thirds of a Shakespearean plot complete with injections of arty-farty textual analysis at breakneck speed, to attempting to obey the command “Start perverting! Start perverting!”
The Oxford audience loved this show and laughed throughout from beginning to end. I hope it goes down as well in Edinburgh. And I hope their venue is near a darned good laundry if they are planning to use real blood patches in the Edinburgh run!