DramaNorth WestReviewShakespeareShakespeare 400

The Two Gentlemen of Verona – Grosvener Park Open Air Theatre, Chester

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Alex Clifton
Reviewer: Mel Duncan

‘They do not love, that do not show their love’ – a folly of youthful naïvity?

Shakespeare’s first play, as full of youthful ambition as is humanly possible, is a demanding undertaking for any company, and requires a skilful handling from both player and director. The raw emotions accompanying coming of age are explored this season by Alex Clifton, this play sitting in a programme with the Bard’s As You Like It and an adaptation of Stig of the Dump.

In a similar manner to Brighton’s offering of the same play earlier this year, Storyhouse have chosen to contemporise the concept, though bringing us a little closer to present day- Brighton’s hippies have grown old, and now bring chaos to the seaside town on their motorised scooters, as our protagonists stumble through gap year travels.

Jess Curtis’ set, as audienceshave come to expect of Grosvener Park Open Air Theatre, is a sparse affair – two balconies, both alike in dignity, a few park benches and a bus stop. None of this out of place in the centre of a park, the set allows the large company to transport us from the colourful Verona, to the monochromatic fashionista Mecca that is Milan through skilful movement of items into the space.

These movements are beautifully covered as actor-musicians, many multi-instrumentalists, bring Tayo Akinbode’s mixture of new score and adaptations of pop classics to the wooden ‘O’. Ben Tolley and Johnson Willis must be commended here for ambitiously playing a solid bass linewhile moving said double bass on unsteady ground and holding a vocal harmony.

Our protagonists are energetically and enthusiastically brought to life by Harry Livingstone and Robert Willoughby. Willoughby (as Jane Austen predicted so many years ago) brings the fleeting boy band factor to Valentine, despite near the knuckle references, thoroughly wholesome and well intentioned, even in the face of adversity. That said, it is Livingstone that captures the heart, as his genial Proteus, even when at his most dastardly, still somehow manages to evoke sympathy for his plight. He is very much the boy in the wrong place, at the wrong time, an interesting choice by Livingstone. Imagine Prince Harry, on a gap year, and you won’t be far wide of the mark.

The constancy of women is an overt theme of this play, and skilful casting finds two incredibly steadfast and constant actors binding much of the piece here. Pippa Moss, as Julia is strong, understated and totally composed throughout- a true woman.

Hats off though to Danielle Henry for embodying two huge Shakespearian ideas in one brilliant character. As a lively, independent and carefree woman, Henry’s Speed provides a wonderful foil for Julia (despite not being the intended foil!) Furthermore, her fast-paced and witty depiction of the character leaves the audience in no doubt that the servants know far more of the bigger picture than the gentry they serve. Henry lights up every scene she is a part of, even when not in the foreground.

Playing in the round, in an outdoor space is notoriously difficult, and at times a little diction was lost. Using the round to their advantage particularly were actors Ben Tolley and Johnson Willis. Tolley’s suave and sophisticated Duke owned the space convincingly, and projected wonderfully without the need to noticeably raise his voice. Launce’s pitiful and self-deprecating nature was crystal clear to all as Willis skilfully commanded a canine companion in addition to the audience. Rosie, as Crab, is incredibly disciplined and completely unfazed by the situation. Some members of the audience, however, get a little more than they bargained for, as charactersbounce into their midst, making themselves quite at home among picnickers.

The summer nights make lighting effects a gamble. Sensibly, Will Evans keeps it simple, and after the interval, when the natural light levels drop, his lighting adds a lot to the action.

This is not traditional Shakespeare, but nor is it using a cutting edge concept. It is gimmicky, there are additions to appeal to a diverse audience. More could be made of this talented band of actor musicians to stylise the piece – contextualise the seemingly fragmented elements. And a little could be done to minimise company noise from just outside the wooden ‘O’ to prevent it from distracting tender moments. But. When it comes down to it, who doesn’t love a good comedic romp on a summer evening? The positives far outweigh the negatives on the offering, and this is a brilliant, accessible piece for new Shakespearian audiences, and old hands alike.

Perfect for a picnic.

Runs until 21August 2016 | Image: Contributed

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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