A Midsummer Night’s Dream (West End)

David Walliams and Sheridan Smith don’t disappoint in Michael Grandage’s latest production at the Noel Coward Theatre

Michael Grandage‘s production of Shakespeare’s perennially popular comedy – the fourth in his star-led residency at the Noel Coward Theatre – is all spliffs and sauciness; an energetic romp in some distinctly dystopian woods.

Its chief attractions are Sheridan Smith, doubling effectively as Titania/Hippolyta, and Shakespeare newcomer David Walliams, making only his second professional acting appearance (following No Man’s Land in 2008) as Bottom.

Neither of the stars disappoint, but it’s Grandage’s injection of pace and vigour into a play that often gets bogged down in pretentious interpretations of its mysticism that proves the evening’s trump card.

Often I find Dream a frustrating affair, proving neither as funny nor profound as it’s capable of being. But Grandage gets the balance right, making it both genuinely entertaining and emotionally detailed.

After a rather prosaic opening scene the evening soon warms up with the appearance of the Mechanicals, led by Walliams’ show-stealing Bottom. Clad in pink shirt and braces, he’s a camp, lisping am-dram diva, who could have stepped straight out of Little Britain.

Smith, meanwhile, transforms from a power-suited Hippolyta into a barefooted, matted-hair hippy queen Titania. It’s a nice juxtaposition, though Hippolyta’s opening exchanges with Theseus (Padraic Delaney, doubling as Oberon) fail to suitably set the mood for what’s to come.

Nevertheless, once we get to the forest – reimagined by designer Christopher Oram as a dark wonderland dominated by a crumbling wall, a spiral staircase and a huge full moon – the production soon takes flight to a soaring soundtrack (from Ben and Max Ringham) featuring the Beach Boys and The Carpenters.

The lovers are a treat. Katherine Kingsley shows great comic dexterity as Helena, seamlessly shifting from frantic seducer (“We should be wooed and were not made to WOO!” she screams at Stefano Braschi‘s hapless Demetrius) to under-siege siren. And together with Susannah Fielding‘s fiesty Hermia and Sam Swainsbury‘s puppyish Lysander, the foursome concoct the production’s stand-out scene when they have the most lively royal rumble you’re likely to see outside the WWF (replete with ripped-off clothes).

And the evening climaxes with a wonderfully light, almost Carry On-esque staging of Pyramus and Thisbe, in which Walliams dons a mini-Roman soldier skirt and dies as if directed by Nigel Planer’s spoof luvvie Nicholas Craig.

It’s not a perfect staging – the drippy songs add little to the evening, ditto movement director Ben Wright’s rather derivative dances – but this Midsummer Night’s Dream is a shining example of how to make Shakespeare work for a West End audience. Namely, with pace, panache and a pair of comedy superstars at the top of their game. It’s not what you’d deem an intellectual interpretation, but it’s all the better for it.