The Comedy of Errors (more or less) at Shakespeare North Playhouse – review

Elizabeth Godber and Nick Lane’s adaptation runs until 25 March before transferring to Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre from 30 March to 15 April

The cast of The Comedy of Errors (more or less) at Shakespeare North Playhouse Patch Dolan

It may be less than six months old, but there seems to be a distinct pattern emerging at the Shakespeare North Playhouse. Possibly even a house style.

The new Prescot theatre – all authentic beams and warm welcome – opened the batting in September with a wacky and wonderful Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed over the festive period by a subversive and hilarious four-actor Christmas Carol. Now it’s the turn of The Comedy of Errors to get the Prescot treatment.

Nick Lane, the same adapter as the Dickens, has collaborated with Elizabeth Godber to rework Shakespeare’s early farce about two pairs of twins on the loose in Ephesus. For this free interpretation, they deposit the story in the 1980s and reposition it as a minor rerun of the Wars of the Roses, in which Prescot and Scarborough (this is a co-production with the Stephen Joseph Theatre) are at loggerheads over their claims to true northernness. In the process, they feature a banging 80s soundtrack, crowbarring Madonna, Flashdance and even a bit of Nik Kershaw into the narrative. Some more successfully than others, it has to be said.

Some trademarks are already evolving: the apparent indisposition of actors leading to audience participation; the rampant and often inspired modernisation of the Bard’s verse; the ‘meta’ evocation of such theatrical mishap-ery as The Play That Goes Wrong. In the hands of SJT artistic director Paul Robinson, it’s superbly handled, crisply rehearsed and often extremely funny.

David Kirkbride and Oliver Mawdsley lead the mayhem as the two pairs of twins but in truth the entire seven-strong cast are sharp, aware of their timings and on top form as an ensemble. It’s a shame the budget couldn’t stretch to live music, but the songs are delivered with tongues firmly in the cheek and a real sense of mischief.

Godber and Lane’s script is affectionately irreverent of its source material – my guess is there’s more of them in the text than of Will himself – which leads to such inanity as an inflatable lobster, a Yorkshire gangster known as Big Sandra, and a giant ice-cream cone costume. Which is all well and good if it weren’t for the niggling feeling that the same tricks and gags are being recycled from one production to another. Maybe that’s just another way of describing ‘house style’…

But these are quibbles. The comedy is broad, as Shakespeare intended, and neatly updated to resonate with a 21st-century audience, coupled with the hugely entertaining trans-Pennine rivalry that is allowed to run riot. Period hair, make-up and costumes are a delight too, courtesy of designer Jess Curtis and wardrobe supervisor Julia Perry-Mook, who transported at least one reviewer straight back to his youthful days of shoulder pads, rolled-up jacket sleeves and ra-ra skirts (not worn simultaneously, to be clear).

Ah yes. Times were simpler then. And maybe just a bit more fun.