Review: Bartholomew Fair (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Ben Jonson’s play is revived at the indoor space adjacent to Shakespeare’s Globe

Jude Owusu in Bartholomew Square
Jude Owusu in Bartholomew Square
© Marc Brenner

Bartholomew Fair is a strange play by Jacobean standards. Following the comings and goings of a seemingly sprawling number of characters at what is now Smithfield Market, the play feels like a whimsical mix between Thornton Wilder's Our Town and Blur's "Parklife". Lacking some of the dazzling word-play of Shakespeare and no way near as focussed as his other work like Volpone or Sejanus, Jonson's show is basically a day in the life of shopkeepers, judges, aristocrats and pick-pockets, each with their own quirks and desires.

It definitely hasn't aged as well as some of the best Jacobean plays out there, but what is nice to report is that director Blanche McIntyre has a very solid stab at bringing it into the modern-day, alongside some convincing and energetic turns from the cast.

The most striking part of the production is Ti Green's lavish, contemporary design, taking the Jacobean charm of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and transforming it into a garishly white-washed, mirror-plated 21st-century aesthetic – the show looks like a strange emulation of an early noughties Ikea catalogue.

This suits the text well – the piece is full of parodically ramped up characters, brawling and colliding across the Fair, drugging, deceiving and stealing from one another. Mulit-roling is almost incessant (12 actors portray more than 30 roles) and a special shout-out has to go to Cathy Hill and her costume team, who are on hand to transform the cast at a mere moment's notice. Time may have blunted some of the play's more cutting satires, but it isn't hard to find some jabs at contemporary society.

McIntyre takes a cue from Jonson and plays a lot of the figures as two-dimensional stereotypes, which sometimes works a charm (Dickon Tyrrell puts on a funny turn as the undercover judge Overdo) and other times proves slightly cringe-inducing, especially shade-sporting Eastern European ward Grace. Grant Olding's compositions are bombastic fun but far too sparse – more of this could really have helped bolster the riotous carnivalesque mood.

But there are some great laughs to be had (there are few Globe shows where you'd expect a character to be swatted with a giant Pikachu) and it's refreshing to see McIntyre throw caution to the wind and transform the Wanamaker space into something novel.