Fitting a cast of 21 into the Finborough's compact performance area isn't easy but director Alex Sutton somehow creates space along with pace. From the opening, with the crowning of Jamie Birkett's May Queen, through the unfolding of the slight plot involving sub-Shakespearean characters losing and finding love, to the rousing finale, the cast perform with gusto and then some.
The parallel plot about the violent treatment of those deemed to be witches by the fearful countryfolk gives the production some edge and there's a bit of history in the relationship between the Queen and the Earl of Essex. But these are broadly comic characters, not intended to be taken seriously or historically. This Queen Elizabeth (Virge Gilchrist) is closer to Blackadder's version of comedy queen - spaced-out, crown askew, never quite knowing whether to join in with the songs about herself.
The voices individually and collectively soar joyously - and sometimes a little too loudly in this intimate theatre - but even among this talented company there are some stand-outs. Daniel Cane effortlessly steals his every scene with a gloriously over-the-top and highly physical portrayal of Shakespearean actor Walter Wilkins. Nichola Jolley's Jill-All-Alone is full of pathos and vulnerability among her clever retorts, while Sir Walter Raleigh is played with authority by Michael Riseley.
Comparisons with Gilbert and Sullivan are inevitable as it's very much in that style of light opera, but Merrie England has its own peculiar charm in its sunny depiction of an England that never existed.
At times there's a bit too much eyes-and-teeth acting, but this is a terrific production, deserving of a larger stage.
- Carole Gordon