Royal & Derngate picked up this little gem of eccentricity at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and are giving it the full-scale production it so thoroughly merits.
Claiming to have rediscovered Shakespeare’s miserable tragedy as the musical comedy it was always meant to be, writers Alex Silverman, Timothy Knapman and Edward Jaspers have assembled a six-strong cast and six-strong band to create a relentlessly-paced frenzy of laughs, puns and sheer stupidity, while somehow retaining all the essential elements of the story.
Thus we get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a couple of puppet-sized American college brats, Laertes as the (randomly) Spanish-obsessed brother whose jealousy of Ophelia’s reputation reveals itself in a fiery tango number, and the strolling players as a jaded troupe of Bob Fosse wannabes in sequins and bowler hats. The numbers are mainly pastiche digs at various styles of musical theatre, from Lloyd Webber to Sondheim, with a rousing audience singalong finale, To Be or Not to Be, thrown in for good measure.
An ingenious, cartoonish set design (Diego Pitarch) and some imaginative costumes (Mia Flodquist) all add to the echoes of Spamalot, which are ever-present and only reinforced by the slightly odd decision to replace the final sword fight with a fish-slapping encounter using giant herrings – pure Monty Python c. 1972.
But any shortcomings in the rather wordy script and convoluted score are compensated for by the performers, who are immensely versatile and blessed with strong voices (though too often drowned in the mix). Mark Inscoe gives a stand-out performance doubling Claudius and the Ghost, while Gabriel Vick (Laertes/Guildenstern) reveals assured comic timing and an energy that is reflected throughout the company.
It may still have the feel of the Fringe about it, but this is a highly enjoyable romp through the Bard that explores one of the English language’s greatest tragedies with all the silliness and irreverence it deserves.
- Michael Davies