Farce divides people. Rather a lot. Overblown caricatures, improbable situations, a lack of depth or substance, an onslaught of crass gags, possibly even the occasional dropping of trousers. In other words, the stuff of nightmares for some. However, I defy anyone to leave Sean McGrath’s zippy, sparky ‘Comedy of Errors’ at the beautiful Trinity College without the hugest of grins. Here, Shakespeare’s shortest and sweetest play is a bundle of joy; this is pure, unadulterated bliss, ideal for a balmy summer’s evening, and delivering more laughs per minute than Ken Dodd on speed. This is the Bard at his least subtle but it matters not a jot.
Perhaps testing the waters for later plays (Twelfth Night, The Tempest), Shakespeare throws a fractured family, mistaken identities, and a shipwreck into the melting pot – the plot hinges around the simple premise of what calamity ensues when two sets of twins (masters and servants) wind up in the same town on the same day. Beginning as a tragedy, where a Syracusian merchant is being led to his death after arriving illegally in the bay of Ephesus, the tone suddenly shifts, plunging the audience into a wonderfully daft farce that often threatens to spiral out of control. Siblings miss each other by a hairpin, gifts are bestowed on unsuspecting characters, the wrong servants are beaten black and blue, and one lucky man gains a spouse. The superb cast hurl themselves into the sheer absurdity, never allowing the pace or energy to drop once, and skilfully work the audience into a wheezing, gut-busting lather. McGrath clearly knows his comedy – indeed, this is as tight an ensemble as one could wish for – and every scene tops the last for ridiculousness and frothy fun.
The performances power the evening. As Antipholus of Syracuse, Tim Atkinson gives us a well-rounded portrait of a man constantly bemused but willing to give in; starting with a cheery demeanour that masks a sadness, Atkinson charts the journey through confusion, anger, love, and contentment with a nice energy and easy charm. Ian Recordon’s doomed Egeon is a sweet, bumbling old merchant who aches with longing for his lost family, Rachael Oliver’s sex-starved Luciana takes no prisoners but vibrates with passion for what she thinks is her brother-in-law, and there is also excellent work from the very funny Evangeline Beaven as an athletic, weary servant, and Emma Longthorne, who somehow makes the shrewish Adriana not only a nag but a vulnerable and neglected woman, and humorous to boot. The truly outstanding performances come from Adam Elms and Lindsey Huebner, who demonstrate impeccable timing and startlingly good physicality. Elms, whose brilliantly sensual, hirsute Courtesan brings the house down, also hilariously makes Angelo a jolly geriatric goldsmith who turns from a guffawing eccentric to a jabbering, scarlet-faced wreck; and Huebner as a firecracker Dromio of Syracuse sparkles in everything she does, whether playfully joshing with her master, noisily sprinting from danger, or describing the horrifically obese kitchen wench she finds herself engaged to. A special mention goes to McGrath, who, standing in for an indisposed cast member, acquitted himself very well, especially as the crazed Doctor Pinch, a portrayal straight out of Monty Python.
After a bout of summer flu, meaning a few festival shows were sadly missed, I was eager to return to this celebration of our greatest playwright, but this production glittered more brightly than expected. As the Saturday evening sun dipped behind the trees and peals of laughter echoed around the stunning college gardens, both audience and cast were having the time of their lives. The only error here would be to miss it.
Review by Rosalind Redford.
‘The Comedy of Errors’ runs until 20th August at Trinity College Gardens, Cambridge. Tickets here: https://www.cambridgeshakespeare.com/programme/the-comedy-of-errors/
Next week: HENRY V