Review: As You Like It (Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch)
The National Theatre's Public Acts scheme comes to Hornchurch with a musical spin on Shakespeare's As You Like It
The National Theatre flooded the Olivier stage with song last year for a Public Acts version of Pericles, where communities from across London were invited to participate in a mass production of Shakespeare's classic.
The plan for the National is now to transplant this model to different venues across the UK, starting this year with the (relatively close-by) Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch. This time around Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery zhoosh up the pastoral jolly As You Like It, with the pair returning to the Bard's work after first premiering this new version at the Public Theater as part of its Public Works scheme in New York.
Taub's music and lyrics are a lot of fun – not all that catchy but full of heart and capturing the essence of the multi-layered romantic romp. The production really hits its stride when Rosalind (Ebony Jonelle) and Orlando (Linford Johnson) are left to play out their romance of intrigue, and Jonelle owns it as the disguised Ganymede. There's also a veritably cocklewarming moment watching Johnson duke it out with some masked wrestlers in a tribute to the lucha libre spirit.
"All the world's a stage" sings Beth Hinton-Lever's Jaques, and it's a nice running thread for a play where all the characters put on some form of pretense – Rosalind disguised as a boy, Celia (Marjorie Agwang, who's fantastic but could have done with oodles more stage time) as a farmhand sister, or even Duke Frederick (Curtis Young), putting on a hate-fuelled exterior when all he craves is a bit of brotherly love. Taub and Woolery turn this all on its head to highlight the importance of individual identity, and the acceptance of others. To perform for the sake of those around you rarely leads to happiness.
Hayley Grindle's set – a multi-colored canopy created by a chock load of streamers – conjures up a carnivalesque Forest of Arden, where a bombastic Duke Senior (Rohan Reckford) reigns over a covenant of followers that look like something out of a modern-day Hair production. Sure – some of the comedy doesn't land, sometimes entrances and exits can feel a bit clunky but it'd take a cold heart indeed not to get caught up in the ebullient optimism of the piece, where those in exile band together and celebrate the redemptive power of love.
The final number in particular, which wraps up with a high-octane, kaleidoscopic extravaganza (with a lot of help from the Dhol Academy) rounds off the night with an absolute firecracker of a finale, which, movingly, then quickly boils down to two performers on stage – one professional, one local, both telling the same story.