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Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

Dominic Hill directs an outdoor production of Shakespeare's comedy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Amber James as Titania and the company of A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Jane Hobson

Beneath a setting sun, pretty young things chase after each other and have loud arguments about who fancies whom. Hermia loves Lysander but is pursued by Demetrius, himself desired by Helena. Asinine antics abound as the plots and subplots stack up. No: it's not last night's episode of Love Island, but a particularly playful Midsummer Night's Dream at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.

Pinch us, because this is one of three Dreams currently playing in London. Eclectic in look and with a diverse cast, Dominic Hill's hard-working production is very easy to settle into. It begins with a bout of beatboxing, proceeds with characters running around in silly pyjamas, and even finds time for a spot of ventriloquism. Normally, nobody cares about other people's dreams – but you'll happily make an exception for Hill, and his wacky re-imagining of Shakespeare's somnambulant story.

The park has hosted the comedy countless times, and for obvious reasons. Birds in their evensong disturb the action from time to time, and a wooded backdrop evokes a mystical forest. Tonight's shady stage hosts a darker rendition of the play than usual; fairies lope around on stilts and crutches like wizened Tolkien ents, and tuxedo'd mischief-maker Puck (Myra McFadyen) has a weird Tim Burton vibe about her. Dream soon turns to nightmare, with Hill portraying magic as manipulation.

Along with the splendid realisation of the sinister fairy characters – who cast spells over the young lovers and watch havoc unfold – there are chuckles in the play's sub-sub-sub-plot; that of the amateur actors trying to stage a version of Pyramus and Thisbe. Variously clad in tracksuits or hippie garb, they are a hilarious crew helmed by the professorly Gareth Snook as Quince. Susan Wokoma is memorable as zealous-but-hopeless luvvie Nick Bottom, turned by magic into a braying donkey.

In a production filled with such unexpected perks, it's perhaps inevitable that the main plot feels a touch less absorbing. If this really was an ITV reality show, Michael Elcock and Gabrielle Brooks probably wouldn't be voted most spellbinding couple as Lysander and Hermia, even though both possess plenty of individual class: him, particularly, as the emotionally unpredictable young fop.

But best of this main quartet is Remy Beasley, bringing poignant irony to the role of Helena. In act two, she wrestles her beloved Demetrius to the ground – only to howl that wooing is one-sided and that women are not free to pursue love as men do. Amid all the show's laughs, this is quite an agonising moment.

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