It’s nice to know that in theatre at least, size doesn’t matter. Just days after the new mega-musical The Lord of the Rings brought JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth epic to life on stage by means of the most spectacular and expensive theatrics ever seen in the West End, along come three guys in knock-kneed tights and brandishing a few wonky wigs, some funny hats and a couple of plastic swords, to perform the entire Shakespeare canon – that’s 37 plays, plus the sonnets – in just 97 minutes (well, give or take a few seconds depending on the length of the laughs) in front of a low-budget backcloth that must have been painted in Tudor times and set the producer back no more than a few Elizabethan ducats.
The combination of cheapo props and frenzied cod acting has been the comedy trademark of this troupe ever since three zany Americans brought the original show to the Edinburgh Fringe 20 years ago, followed by a nine-year run at the Criterion Theatre. Now another three likeable Shakespearean stooges – Gary Fannin, Michael O'Connor and John Schwab – are in town for a summer season at the Arts Theatre, where the spoofs and send-ups also ran for a year in the early 1990s. And although I went in thinking, oh no, we're not going to go all through that again and asking myself if this revival might be an abridgement too far, I still came out beaming at the low bardolotry of it all.
Most, if not all, of the original mugging remains firmly intact: a ridiculous Romeo and a Juliet wearing bad drag, followed by an Othello rap, the comedies condensed into a couple of minutes, the histories acted out as an American football game, a madcap Macbeth done in a thicker-than-porridge Scottish accents, Titus Andronicus as a TV chef, a Troilus and Cressida involving a wind-up toy Godzilla and finally, taking up most of the second act, an audience participation Hamlet, where a hapless woman in the front row is hauled up to be Ophelia and the rest of us play her ego, super-ego and id.
Thankfully, there are enough new dot-com jokes and Google gags to make the relentless spoofing from years ago feel as if it’s entered the iPod era, especially the whacky one about downloading and reading the entire script of King John on a Blackberry. If you still like plenty of ham in your Hamlet I’d say, “get thee to a performance!” – and perhaps try to imagine how these three guys might have downsized The Lord of the Rings.