Regarded by critic Kenneth Tynan as one of the twin summits of Shakespeare's genius, Henry IV Part I follows the redemption of Prince Hal (Jamie Barber) - Henry V to be - from wastrel, living on the fringes of the criminal underworld, to fit-to-rule heir-apparent.
I'm sure Bristol Old Vic has a hit on its hands. The play, clocking in at around three hours, fair rattles along, although the later battle scenes drag somewhat, and there are some fine performances with the 17 cast members doubling and even trebling up parts.
Gerard Murphy revels in his role as the dissolute knight, whose excess of flesh, as he explains, breeds greater spiritual frailty. Barber (best known for TV dramas including Hornblower and Scarlet Pimpernel) is a spirited and dashing prince, if lacking the ruthless streak William Houston brought to the part in the RSC's 2000 production.
Jimmy Yuill as King Henry IV turns in an able performance although, again, ultimately fails to convince that here is a man capable of deposing and killing a legitimate ruler. Hotspur (Shaun Dingwall), bearing a disturbing resemblance to chat-show host Johnny Vaughan, is a figure of fun, less valiant warrior than one-of-the-lads, visibly chafing as his wife chides him for his absences, fair itching to escape and get on with some hacking.
Patrick Monckton turns in a marvellous comic performance as windy Welsh rebel Glendower. There are times, though, during this production when it veers towards pantomime, the more so as actors step forward to address their soliloquies directly to the audience.
Above all, however, plaudits must go to Mick Bearwish for his stunning designs - the set serving now as a throneroom, now as a tavern - and period costumes. Ultimately, this is trad rather than innovative Shakespeare, offering nothing new in its interpretation, but the ambition of the theatre, which is also staging Henry IV Part II, is to be applauded. This is feelgood theatre and none the worse for that. Bravo director Gareth Machin.
- Pete Wood