There is a terrible kind of evening in the theatre that, in its perverse, old-fashioned way, can be curiously compelling, and Andrew Doyle’s Shamlet falls with a merry thud into this benighted category.
The sole salvation of James Robert Carson’s production -- about a bunch of thespian losers putting on a weird version of Hamlet on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon while their producer connives with Shakespeare’s ghost to raid the bard’s tomb in Holy Trinity -- is that it is directed with notable efficiency and acted to the hilt by a game and determined cast.
The producer, Marcus (Tom Walker), is hoping to find Shakespeare’s three lost plays: Cardenio, Loves’ Labour’s Won and the even more obscure Parable of Gerald, the Fat French Shepherd. To this ridiculous end, he has secured lodgings and a performance venue with a fat Lithuanian landlady (Maxine Howe) who exudes threatening gypsy oddness.
His company assembles at first in a Peckham hell-hole and expands from two or three to six after an audition process and the wooing of a booming grandee, Isambard Warrington (Gregory Floy), once known as “the pretty boy of Bognor” and lately described by Benedict Nightingale, apparently, as “a washed up old queen.” Isambard, played by Floy with an unseemly, molar-flashing relish in the style of Donald Sinden gone mad, enters in full Lily Savage drag, cursing his luck in a tacky pantomime engagement.
The motley crew, led by Grainne Gillis’s full-on bonkers lesbian director (“It isn’t art until it hurts” she screams in an improvisatory rehearsal that has gone on for 12 hours), includes a statuesque nymphet and dominatrix (Dorothy Lawrence) who turns Queen Gertrude into a nightclub raver; an unlikely Horatio (Andrew Beavis) who decamps as a wild rapper before the opening performance; and a wan nun, Bernadette (hilariously played by Pauline Shanahan) who auditions with Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene and spends the rest of her debut experience covering her ears against backstage insults and obscenities.
How the cast manage their quick costume changes is a sight to behold, especially in the case of Debbie Arnold, doubling as an infatuated stage-manager and an incensed Anne Hathaway, flogging pies and complaining about having been left the bard’s second best bed. After the terrifying car crash that was this theatre’s last production, A Right Royal Farce, at least you can see that the actors have worked hard in rehearsal.
Whether or not their efforts were justified is a moot point. I suspect the show might draw a camp little cult audience, and it is clear that Andrew Doyle – an Oxford scholar and stand-up comedian – has a lurking talent for something or other. But Shamlet is one of those shows it is more fun to talk about, and indeed write about, than to actually sit through.