John O’Keeffe’s work was celebrated with a grand flourish at a specially commissioned benefit performance in Covent Garden in 1800. He was described by William Hazlitt as being the ‘English Moliere’. In 1976, Bernard Levin of the Sunday Times proclaimed, “Whoever dug this masterpiece out for The Royal Shakespeare should be knighted at once…I declare that there is not to be found a more entirely delectable entertainment pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross” following an RSC revival of Wild Oats.
Anticipation is certainly running high in Bristol as Mark Rosenblatt’s latest production re-opens the main house of the Bristol Old Vic following an extensive refurbishment.
We are greeted with a new prologue to open the show but it also serves as a warm welcome to the new look main house. What follows is a case of mistaken identity, love at first sight and daring thespian, Jack Rover’s on-going mission to slip as may Shakespeare quotes into a sentence as possible. On paper this production has a lot to offer.
In practice, there is a lot going for Wild Oats. Ben Stones’ design is a feast for the eyes. Maximising but never over whelming the stage, the lights, props, instruments and mobile set pieces all make for a wonderfully malleable stage. Marc Teitler’s wonderful score balances incidental music and underscores scenes and the cast as a whole work well together under Rosenblatt’s direction.
Sam Alexander makes for a suitably charismatic Jack Rover and Hugh Skinner makes the perfect foil in his portrayal of Harry Thunder. Kim Wall’s Sir George Thunder copes with the mischief and the mayhem with gusto. All three in particular take particular joy in their license with the audience.
What this play lacks however is purpose. After an almost impenetrable first half, aside from the theatrical creativity in staging and spirited performances, there is a lot of catching up to do. Once the plot has unfolded in the second half and the loose ends are tied up, what you are left with is much ado about nothing. A case of mistaken identity and lines heavily lifted from Shakespeare’s cannon make Wild Oats feel more like a theatre geek’s folly rather than a large scale crowd pleaser.
There is no question that the theatre looks wonderful and it is a pleasure to have the main house back on the map. What it needed was a big bang rather than jolly jape to welcome it back.