Benton hits rock BottomDate: 17 February 2012
Filter's almost totally brilliant new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric, Hammersmith, poses a problem for reviewers. The actor who plays Bottom is not listed in the programme. So who plays him?
The show starts with an obsequious, Irish Peter Quince freewheeling through some gags about the royal family and finally admitting that the show cannot go on. Bottom's not arrived. He is to be played each night by a guest star, along the lines of Ralph Fiennes or Ian McKellen dropping in to The Play What I Wrote.
But tonight's star, Gary Oldman, has been lost in a lift backstage. The house lights come up, Peter Quince (one of Shakespeare's mechanicals, here played with daft and deft originality by Ed Gaughan) apologises profusely and says our money will be refunded. It's a catastrophe, and a crying shame, especially as the stalls are packed with critics and "an eejit from the Daily Mail."
Then he has a wheeze and asks if there are any actors in the house who might be tempted to have a go at Bottom. But they have to be famous. He spots the fairly famous Mark Benton in the third or fourth row of the stalls and drags him up on the stage, complete with several orange plastic bags of Sainsbury shopping (which will feature heavily in the lovers' row scene, Act 3, Scene 2).
It's a laboriously worked plant, but very well done, and Benton joins in with a will and a passion, proving himself a splendid growling rock singer and guitarist in the onstage band: "Peter Quince and the Mechanicals."
Actually, the rest of the band are just Chris Branch and Alan Pagan, and they also do all the sound effects. The set is a white paper box, a lovely send-up of Peter Brook's legendary RSC version: "I'll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes," declares Ferdy Roberts' bearded, butch and stage manager-ish Puck, bursting through the upstage wall.
The fairy bower is a tiled bathroom area, Oberon's opiate drug a squirting blue dye that gets everywhere, Oberon himself (Jonathan Broadbent) a mock superman figure in a blue jump suit and thick specs who flies in from above and disappears hilariously through a trap.
There have no doubt been many bonkers German productions of the Dream along these lines, but I've never seen a British one. And Mark Benton - he's an older, bigger, more basso profundo but equally funny version of James Corden - is a superb Bottom, bossing the stage to the manner born and playing the transformed lothario without any donkey ears or traditional braying noises.
Director Sean Holmes and his Filter colleagues have struck to the quick, the very essence, of the play, which is all about terrible surprises, transformations, mis-directed passion and sexual entanglement.
The fairy dust is disseminated in sound and fury, the latter commodity supplied by Puck's vicious throwing of crusty bagles with unerring accuracy in the direction of several aisle-bound critics.
I can't imagine a better production of any Shakespeare play for an audience of curious teenagers than this, and the first night atmosphere at the Lyric was extraordinary.
There was an excitable crowd, too, at the opening of Singin' in the Rain. I sat behind one of the producers, Rebecca Quigley of Stage Entertainment, who could hardly sit still in her seat.
Then in the interval I greeted Christopher Biggins who said, as he descended the giant staircase: "Will you buy me a drink, I've got no money!" What I think he meant was that, like a slightly better known queen, he doesn't carry loose change.
It was on congratulating him on his casting in the Ray Cooney revival of Two Into One that he shot his thunderbolt.
"It's not happening," he revealed. "First, Denise van Outen pulled out, then Gyles Brandreth, and poor old Ray Cooney has to pay me anyway for the contract I've signed." "Oh, but surely you'll not take his money," I wheedled... his face turned to granite.
I changed the subject. "So what next, then, old boy?" "I'm back on tour in Dancing On Ice." "Not dancing, surely? After Ann Widdecombe and Russell Grant I don't think we could take any more embarrassing comedy ballet." "No, I'm one of the judges."
Phew, such a relief to know that Biggins is one of us after all, a mere critic. At last, a touch of colour and personality in our too dull ranks.