Those people who think that the Notting Hill Carnival represents one of the worst aspects of modern living will be dismayed to note that Londoners have long been used to spending three days in August in raucous revelry and debauchery. London s Bartholomew Fair was already a fixture in the revellers calendar for hundreds of years before Ben Jonson thought about using it as a basis for his play.
Jonson s plot is too complicated to explain in a few words. Suffice to say that a rather bizarre mix of suburban gentry troop off to Bartholomew Fair, and nearly all of them emerge rather chastened by the experience - money, clothes, fiances, wives and dignity are all lost.
Despite the Jacobean background, it s to modern-day Notting Hill that director Laurence Boswell turns to for inspiration. Orchestrating his vision of the fair with a loud (and deafening) mix of soca and reggae (courtesy of composer Simon Bass), the concept must have looked perfect on paper - just the thing to bring the characters contemporary counterparts out. But as many a party-goer has discovered, that packet of herbs bought at the carnival, that packet that looked so enticing on All Saints Road, turns out to be nothing but a lot of dried-out leaves. There is nothing actually unpalatable about this production, it s just rather short on highs.
Part of the problem is that the desperate villains do not really convince as a band of desperadoes. Only Owen Sharpe s smoothly sinister cut-purse Edgworth and Mark Hadfield s Lantern Leatherhead (who is particularly good in the puppetry scene) are believable - the rest of the low life seem about as dangerous as a bevy of Notting Hill trustafarians.
The gentry who get humbled at the fair are slightly better value. John Quayle is a pompous Overdo, Zubin Varla an oily Winwife and David Henry a suitably blustering Busy, that stock Jonson caricature, the hyprocritical puritan. No marks though for Stephen Boxer s overly mannered Littlewit or Tom Goodman-Hill s over-the-top Cakes. Best by far is Rob Edwards deliciously louche Quarlous - here is someone who looked well at home in the sleaziest of dives.
A disappointing evening then, despite some good performances. But for all the hard work put in by this company of ne er-do-wells, they manage somehow to make Ben Jonson unfunny - and that is the greatest crime of all.