The Stephen Joseph Theatre continues to have the best of both worlds: the planning and productions of innovative Artistic Director Chris Monks together with revivals and new plays by Sir Alan Ayckbourn. However, both the first two productions of what looks to be a fine summer season would remind the curate of his egg.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream uses a cast of 13, including the three actors appearing concurrently in Boston Marriage all of whom prove immensely versatile. The doublings include the now usual Theseus/Oberon and Hyppolyta/Titania, with all the Mechanicals except Bottom taking on a fairy identity – very effective, too, the fairies clearly related to the working men. The common double of Puck with Philostrate doesn’t quite happen, but Puck, a sort of Master of Ceremonies in this production, takes over the Master of the Revels’ Act 5 lines.
The main change textually is to present the Mechanicals as what appears to be the outdoor staff at a big house, with Peter Quince transformed into a sort of Gertrude Jekyll figure, more authoritative than usual, played with wit and precision by the excellent Julie Jupp. The transformation works up to a point: the malapropisms and garbled prologue don’t really fit the new Mrs Quince and “Nick Bottom the head gardener” hardly sounds right, though the horticultural theme gives designer Sue Condie and choreographer Beverley Norris-Edmunds opportunities they seize expertly.
Pyramus and Thisbe’s garden-based props and costumes are a delight, as is the bucolic bergamask that closes the festivities before Puck and the fairies sweep in. Costumes generally distinguish the different groups attractively: the aristocrats early 20th century, Theseus' buttoned up military, Hermia and Helena moving stylishly into the 1920s; a farouche Oberon and Titania; the workers in full salt of the earth garb with flat caps a-plenty.
Movement, as in the lingering farewells up the theatre’s stepped aisles, is often outstanding, the Astor Piazzolla-derived incidental music and Kieran Buckeridge’s unassuming songs fit the mood perfectly. So why was enjoyment fitful?
Characterisation is not always strong, ability to point the meaning naturally is patchy and Chris Monks shows a surprising liking for strained accents. Above all Clare Corbett does very well physically as Puck (a very naughty boy, I would have thought), but, with her strangulated would-be aristocratic accent, top hat and partial gents’ evening dress, she emerges as Lady Ottoline Morrell voiced by Julie Walters and choreographed by Bob Fosse. The lovers are suitably energetic, with Pete Ashmore and Kieran Buckeridge handling the lines more capably than their female counterparts.
Kraig Thornber and Lisa Stevenson manage the Royals’ transformation well, but he gets the magic of Oberon only intermittently and she distinguishes Hippolyta with another set of strangulated vowels. The Mechanicals/gardeners are delightfully unassuming, even Claude Close, giving Bottom a rumpled Yorkshire certainty, while Dominic Brewer (Flute) is hilarious as a skipping Thisbe, oddly more touching than any of the “real” lovers.