Wildcard's Tempest at the Pleasance Theatre – review

Shakespeare’s final play gets a raucous gig-theatre twist

Kate Littlewood as Prospero in Tempest
Kate Littlewood as Prospero in Tempest
© Lidia Crisafulli

In a co-production between Pleasance Theatre and Wildcard (the company behind the award-winning Electrolyte), Shakespeare's final play The Tempest is reimagined as a piece of gig theatre complete with original music, cabaret seating and a trombone solo at the top of the show which will "blow your mind".

Directed by Wildcard founding artistic director James Meteyard, this production doesn't have a clear setting, rather a liminal club-like space (which some of the actors frequently break the fourth wall to comment upon in modern language). Designer Luke W Robson has the cast spinning on a revolve or placed upon a centrepiece resembling a shipwreck. A balcony snakes around the back of the stage, where spirit Ariel generally resides, while Caliban's shelter features a drum kit and is decorated with pots and pans. There's neon aplenty – such as Gonzalo's highlighter yellow suit – and costumes are fashioned out of separate pieces sewn together, such as King Alonso's coat, or Miranda's dress comprised of strips of floaty blue fabric.

It's an ambitious undertaking to turn this quite dark story into a piece of riotous gig theatre but the company are clearly having a ball. As lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, Ruby Crepn-Glyne and Tashinga Bepete give an incredible performance of composer Jasmine Morris' "I Want Your Love" (please say there's a recording coming?) while Alexander Bean's performance of a track based on the "Ban, Ban Caliban" line is another musical highlight. Loren O'Dair shows off beautiful aerial skills as, well, Ariel in the dinner party scene which is reimagined as a trippy nightclub complete with pulsing strobe lighting (design by Sherry Coenen) and dancers wearing unicorn masks. It's a shame we don't get to see O'Dair move more, instead relegated to being a voice in the dark at the back of the stage, but the reveal is worth it. In fact, the whole cast (who double up as musicians throughout) are pretty amazing.

The standout performances of the show, however, have to go to Gigi Zahir and Eleanor House as comedy duo Trinculo and Stephano. As soon as Zahir enters as Trinculo, dressed in a shiny blue mac and fringed red wig ("I thought this was press night, not depressed night?" they quip) they have the audience eating out of the palm of their hand. Their line reading of Shakespearean verse is hilarious along with their comments on the text ("Bit racist, but we move on"). House is an excellent comedic partner as straight-faced Stephano and the pair along with Bean's Caliban are undoubtedly the highlight of the show.

However, despite all these great individual moments, the piece feels like two shows stitched together. There's a lack of central figure Prospero (Kate Littlewood), and when she does appear, she gives a very classical performance. Meanwhile, it's clear the audience are responding best to the bawdy comedy scenes which frequently go off-script. Though fun, it is at times detrimental to the pacing of the show which does feel a bit long despite clocking in at just over two hours.

A fun evening of Shakespearean spectacle (though if you don't know the story it may be a little hard to follow in this production), Wildcard have done an excellent job of making this classic tale thoroughly entertaining.