Northern Broadsides’ collaborations with mainstream theatres bring the company to the New Vic, a largish theatre-in-the-round auditorium much better suited to Barrie Rutter’s production style than a conventional proscenium arch theatre.

In this venue the notoriously difficult opening of The Tempest becomes a high point of the production. Instrumentalists and singers, scattered about the stage and auditorium, perform Conrad Nelson’s ingenious melange of sea shanties, catches, and lines of the play while a nimble look-out peers out from the crow’s nest of a skeleton of a mast. Ariel detaches themselves (for the airy spirit takes threefold form in this production) from the music makers and the song, “Come unto these yellow sands”, leads into Prospero and his spells.

The Tempest disproves the view that Broadsides just do brisk, straightforward, no-nonsense productions. Admittedly the briskness is there and the lords’ scenes are direct and effective, with not much of the Machiavellian and the good old man Gonzalo (Tim Barker) the most striking character.

Invention is more to the fore in the low comedy scenes, with Simon Holland Roberts (Stephano) and Conrad Nelson (Trinculo) an entertaining Liverpudlian double act, Roberts roaringly ineffectual, Nelson fastidiously camp. Rutter dares to play Caliban for the comedy (barely a hint of the colonial sub-text), Michael Hugo’s gymnastic grotesque surely the first Caliban to be served by Bob Fosse-style choreography.

The production’s originality is mostly in its music and magic, producing some beautiful moments, some very funny scenes and occasional dislocations of tone. The three-in-one Ariel works surprisingly well, partly through the expressive, well-integrated performances of Nicola Gardner, Simone Saunders and Belinda Everett, partly because of Rutter’s ingenious deployment of them, but the edgy chemistry between master and servant is dissipated.

Musically Nelson takes us from jazz and country to Elizabethan canon, from jews’ harp and musical saw to a battery of percussion, the actor-musicians showing remarkable versatility. Frequently the music creates a sense of magic, but now and then it trivialises: when the errant lords are brought before Prospero for judgement, they produce banjos and clarinets from their coats and launch into “Where the bee sucks”.

However, Broadsides’ vision of The Tempest as a magic comedy makes a splendid introduction to the play for the Key Stage 3 students so much in evidence at the New Vic. At the heart of the production are charmingly unaffected performances from Sarah Cattle and Matt Connor as the lovers and Barrie Rutter’s stalwart Prospero, at his best when conveying the character’s humour and his potential for danger.

- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme)