The great thing about Tom Stoppard’s affectionate comedy featuring two supporting characters from Hamlet is that you do not need to brush up on your Shakespeare to enjoy the humour or the play itself.
Think of Ricky Gervais’ Extras, in that the unsung heroes within the text featuring the Great Dane are now the major stars. As they guide you through their weird and wacky world, you view the Bard’s work from completely different angles. You see Ophelia, Polonius and co but they are from the twosomes’ point of view.
Stoppard’s enduring hit requires two strong actors with buckets of chemistry and the ability to fire on all cylinders, in terms of comic timing. Leigh Symonds and Graeme Hawley are great friends in real life, and it shows as they make a supreme double act, constantly on stage – juggling the complexities of the ingenious script and displaying a real affinity for the material.
The other 11 players rarely get a look in; the tables are turned as these main characters now offer support. But they each shine in their small but perfectly formed vignettes. Phil Rowson’s Hamlet is full of angst and despair, but with a newly acquired tongue in cheek approach. Andonis Anthony and Meriel Scholfield both offer majestic appeal as Claudius and Gertrude.
It is Michael Jenn, though, who steals the show as 'the player'. Sounding and looking like a Monty Python character enables this gifted actor to up the ante in terms of zaniness. There is never a dull moment when his character reappears.
Dawn Allsopp’s brilliantly deceptive set feels basic but harbours many secrets within, providing hiding holes for characters who reappear like scuttling rats. Jon Nicholls’ music is powerful, sending up the image of Shakespeare plays really well. Likewise, Nick Richings’ harsh lighting changes constantly, beautifully capturing Stoppard’s vision of the play within a play.
The audience loved this ferociously funny play. Like all of Stoppard’s work, it can infuriate the uninitiated at times. But credit to director, Chris Honer, as he never allows the piece to get pretentious and self-important.
“What do you make of it so far?” says the player at a pivotal moment. I agree with a lady in the foyer on the way out who uttered: “Bloody brilliant.”