Review Round-up: Hooray for Henry in ComedyDate: 30 November 2011
Dominic Cooke's new production of The Comedy of Errors opened to critics last night (29 November, previews from 22 November) in the NT Olivier, starring Lenny Henry in his second major Shakespearean role in as many years (following Othello).
The Comedy of Errors continues in rep in the NT Olivier until 17 January 2012.
"Having cast Lenny Henry as the visiting Antipholus - and he’s more than equal to the challenge - Cooke and designer Bunny Christie throw so much noise and design at the show that the comedy of mistaken identity bends and buckles into one of not 'who’s who; but 'who cares who’s who?' As a sequel to Richard Bean’s Goldoni, a sort of 'Two Men, Two Guvnors,' it limps home a lame second ... There’s lots of busy 'action' in a pool hall and a beauty salon. None of this amounts to an innovative or fresh way of doing the play – it just isn’t charming, sexy or seductive ... Lenny of course mugs triumphantly through the brouhaha ... At least the tempo slows for the scene of revelation and reunion, presided over with silken dignity by Pamela Nomvete as a secular Abbess in carnival costume. There is at last a hint of the magical, enchanted quality of this play, but it’s far too late. Angelo ... is given some lovely strokes by Amit Shah, but this remains a persistently unfunny show ... There’s too much 'stuff' going on, and it’s significant that Lenny and Lucian get their biggest laughs when going into their voodoo hand signal routine, or rolling their eyes at the audience. Cooke wants to bring out the 'dark' side of Comedy. He forgot the contrast. And the ensemble farce playing is of secondary school standard."
"In Dominic Cooke’s savvy fast-moving modern-dress production ... there is a hurtling vigour about both play and production, and the mistaken identity routines and farcical chaos often prove a comic delight. Lenny Henry returns to Shakespeare after his big success a couple of years ago as Othello ... he once again impresses. He has tremendous stage presence and combines dazed confusion and moments of furious rage with a touching sense of wonder ... Cooke and his fine company achieve the transition from ribald humour to something deeper and truly heartfelt with grace. The production is greatly helped by the fact that Henry bears a plausible resemblance to Chris Jarman who plays his twin brother, though the latter largely lacks Henry’s instinctive comedic gifts. There is strong work too from Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser as the Dromio twins ... There’s a delightful performance too from Claudie Blakley ... a delightful comic turn. When it comes to great belly laughs Cooke’s production isn’t quite as irresistibly funny as the NT’s triumphant One Man, Two Guvnors. But it does memorably capture the sudden moments of poetry and deeper feeling that deepen Shakespeare’s most farcical play, hinting at dramatic and poetic glories to come."Michael Billington
"The end crowns all. For much of its length I found this production of Shakespeare's early masterpiece slightly strenuous fun as if its director, Dominic Cooke, on his National debut was determined to make use of all the theatre's resources. But in the last quarter-hour his production achieves a magical simplicity that induces a sense of awe and wonder ... there are times when Cooke's determination to create a massively detailed cityscape suffocates some of the play's mistaken-identity fun ... I accept that Shakespeare's play has the quality of a dream. But Cooke pushes too far the idea of the city as a source of fear and madness. Shakespeare's genius, however, has a way of asserting itself. And, just when I was beginning to pine for the visual restraint that directors like Clifford Williams and Tim Supple once brought to the play, this production achieves a beautiful serenity and calm ... even if I have seen funnier versions of the play, what this production captures vividly is that dreamlike sense of transformation that makes Shakespearean comedy unique. In The Comedy of Errors the characters exist in a world that is both realistically concrete and a house of illusion; and that duality is finally achieved in this Cooke's tour of a bewitched city."Paul Taylor
"The face that dominates the poster for Dominic Cooke's almost excessively inventive modern-dress production is that of Lenny Henry, who is virtually a Shakespeare veteran now after his extraordinarily brave dive into the deep end with Othello. He's the big box-office draw here and he's wonderfully funny ... he's part of a fine ensemble that work hard to animate an over-cluttered concept and eventually drive the proceedings to a pleasing crescendo of comic mayhem ... I'm not sure that Cooke best prepares for this link by presenting the back story as a detailed re-enactment, replete with whirling helicopter rescue services, which erupts all over Bunny Christie's extraordinary, three-tier set ... Henry beautifully conveys the tragicomic plight of an innocent abroad ... He's great at the physical slapstick, but he also gives real emotional depth to the role ... In the final act, a production needs to show how the frantic incredulity provoked by farce shifts to the calm wonder stirred by romance. That doesn't quite happen here in a staging where the Abbess who officiates over the reunions becomes a therapist in the Abbey Clinic. Lurching from penthouses to knocking shops to Harley Street, this Comedy of Errors ends up sacrificing poetry to ingenious prose."Libby Purves
"While it is always a treat to see Lenny Henry doing comic outrage ... I have to say that the evening did not quite deliver the explosive pleasure which Shakespeare’s cunning comedy deserves. Not that Dominic Cooke’s production lacks panache: certainly it enjoys having the huge Olivier stage and a revolving Bunny Christie city to play with. Lenny Henry himself ... is well matched with Chris Jarman as twins separated in infancy, and their Dromios — Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser in identical Arsenal shirts — are immaculately alike. Credit to the wig-and-glasses department for that, but most to their skilfully mirrored body language. Indeed Cooke’s modern-urban production is full of sharp ideas ... What bothered me in the first half was the shortage of laughs, perhaps because of the selfconsciously ‘noir‘ inner-city setting and the initial starkness as heavies drag in the hooded, condemned Egeon (Joseph Mydell) ... But it sets a dark tone, and so does the early violence ... It gets much better, not least because the women are magnificently funny as Essex-blonde WAGs teetering on impossible heels. Adriana (Claudie Blakley) is nicely plaintive ... and Michelle Terry as Luciana deploys fabulous comic timing to haul in even more laughs than the star. The final reunions, particularly between Egeon and Pamela Nomvete’s psychiatrist Abbess, are as moving as ever."
"Lenny Henry ... is assured and engaging in this colourful production of a comedy frequently dismissed as slight. He revels in the exuberance of a piece that deals with the misadventures of two pairs of twins separated since childhood ... Cooke controls the ensemble deftly, and his interpretation is full of ingenious little dabs of colour ... Perhaps the most remarkable feature is Bunny Christie's design, conjuring a succession of locations in a style both atmospheric and witty ... The comedy is played broadly. There's a distinct air of pantomime as the emotional mishaps mingle with ghastly puns and gags about flatulence. Yet Cooke finds more pathos than is usual, and the conclusion is genuinely touching. Proceedings get off to an uncertain start, with some lumpy exposition. But they pick up after about 20 minutes. Henry is instrumental in this, combining appealingly with his servant (played with a lovely vitality by Lucian Msamati). His command of physical comedy is precise, and his tone suitably light. The support is a little uneven. But there's superb comic work from Michelle Terry and Claudie Blakley and a poignant turn by Pamela Nomvete ... Aside from a few sluggish first-half moments, this is a crowd-pleasing show that brings festive, risqué cheer to the National Theatre's largest space."
"The show is wall-to-wall joy and Mr Henry is beyond good ... The play opens with a tricky passage of exposition. Director Dominic Cooke avoids this time-honoured pothole by making exuberant use of high scaffolding and a mimed enactment of the story so far. Then Mr Henry arrives. In his opening scene he whacks his servant in the face with a metal tray – thwop! – and some urban cafe bystanders are splatted by custard pies ... Cooke’s ingenious take on the tale brings it into the modern day, with the two Dromios wearing identical Arsenal FC shirts ... Mr Henry’s technique in the fight scenes is a bit dodgy but he makes up for it with his energy, some rationed gurning and his stage presence. Not all members of the cast speak quite clearly enough but you are never in much doubt about the general drift of their words, thanks to the ceaseless visual spectacle and the sheer vim of the enterprise."
- Natalie Generalovich & Theo Bosanquet