Sunday, 7 July 2013

Theatre review: Love's Labour's Lost (Grassroots Shakespeare London / Old Red Lion)

Apparently not wanting to give themselves an easy ride in any way, the second play Grassroots Shakespeare London have chosen for their Old Red Lion repertory is the early comedy Love's Labour's Lost. It's easy to forget how much of a mess, plot-wise, some of the world's best-loved plays can be, but though there's fun to be had here, the production doesn't do anything to disguise the play's problems. Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Lucas Livesey) decides he wants to dedicate himself to study, and convinces his three best friends and his court to join him in a three-year vow to abstain from all other pursuits - especially romantic ones. No sooner is the ink dry on the contract though than the Princess of France (Andrew Gruen) arrives with her own entourage of three women, so each of the four men has someone to severely test his vow of celibacy.

As with Romeo and Juliet, the play has been rehearsed without a director, and if anything the absence is more keenly felt here, as individual moments and performances are done well enough, but the script's awkwardness is all too apparent, the plots and subplots not coming anywhere near cohering together.

Perhaps the production's biggest flaw is in fluffing "the letter scene," the play's one big comic setpiece when the men discover that their friends are all equally smitten, and which is played pretty straight with little exploration of how far the comic possibilities could go. They have a bit more fun with the sillier "Muscovite" scene. There's a decent Berowne and Rosaline in Alec Parkinson and Alex Bedward, although the latter is not as good when doubling as Dull, which basically comes down to a lot of mugging. And unfortunately James Swanton once again injects his character, this time Holofernes, with enough ham to make the production neither kosher nor halal.

Better is Loren O'Brien's Boyet, who gets some nice comic business with a tent when his charges are made to sleep al fresco. Boris Mitkov's cockney Costard stays just on the right side of going too big, and has a lot of fun with his character's misunderstanding of "remuneration." Speaking of which, Robert Nairne's Don Adriano is ludicrous but then... he's Don Adriano, so that's going to happen, and at least he's fun and comprehensible, unlike some attempts at the Spanish clown. And Matthew Cavendish is amusing in a more low-key way as a hangdog Moth, his appearance in a nappy as the infant Hercules funnier because of his refusal to milk it.

Ultimately, as with Romeo and Juliet, this production's problems are for the most part the play itself's problems, except the looser approach to holding the piece together here exposes them even more starkly - I enjoyed many of the scenes in their own right, but have to wonder how a newcomer to the story would have fared trying to make sense of its various strands. And although the gender-neutral casting is a nice idea, there's not nearly enough women in the cast for it to work properly; for the most part the actors play their own gender, so the few instances of cross-dressing feel gimmicky. After the recent controversies about the lack of roles for women, the company could have got some great publicity out of a 50/50 split, instead of which their equal opportunities policy has still ended up with just three women in a cast of twelve.

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 27th of July at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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