There’s always been a tightly-woven relationship between social behaviours, such as eating together and drinking booze, and performance. The ancient Greeks did it, The Elizabethans did it, the audiences of Epic theatre were doing it in the roaring 20’s, and we are still captivated by it today. It is a theatre devoid of pomp, silence and stillness – a theatre that lives in the same space as those who watch it.
That’s why I’ve always rallied behind pub theatre. I think theatre should hold a closer footing to the life and times of those who sit and watch it, and reflect the community in which it’s grown. There is something profound and personal about theatre that doesn’t live in a far-off west-end venue, and Fox & Chips‘ latest venture provides just that.
Down Eversholt street, at The Pack & Carriage, in between the bar stools, you will find a very adept and cheeky rendition of Shakespeare’s heartwarming comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.
This rendition of Much Ado is a jolly, drunken, sit-com of a show that makes good on Shakespeare’s original comic formula of lively physical humour, deftly performed witticisms and bawdy jiggishness. The text feels largely untouched and uncut, but very rarely gratuitous, even for a lover of the short and the snappy – like myself. Set against the backdrop of the 1984-85 Miner’s strike, Fox & Chips conjure a world of daft punks, coked-up 80’s businessmen, and thick-witted watchmen – the world as a whole is easy to sink into and supports the roguish, sexualised and fiercely independent characters of Shakespeare’s text.
Designer, Jennifer Browne, has left the pub pretty much untouched, and rightly so – the Pack & Carriage hasn’t changed much since the 80’s anyway – but has included the odd political placard and Persian rug to set the scene and provide a central playing space for the action.
The costuming (Also Browne) is sound and of the period, and doesn’t shy away from the absurd when there’s an opportunity for it. The returning soldiers are all political patches on denim jackets, Claudio (Darren Latham) walks down the isle dressed like Rick Astley, and the masquerade is full of Thatchers, Sandra Dees and young(ish) Prince Charleses. The women are a mix of rara skirts, bare legs and stunning 80’s body-con dresses that really bring out the sexual provocation that underpins the text, and it was nice to see a return of the mighty 80’s “Giant Mobile” and novelty police officer helmets with their own blues&two’s on top. I’m struggling to get behind the costume decision for Dogberry who, rather than joining the watchmen in police regalia, is dressed as a punk. I suppose it fits Dogberry’s nature but seems visually odd. besides that, there is plenty that catches the eye and puts a smile on your face.
Composer, Filippo Faustini, has a good go at merging Shakespeare’s lyrics with classic 80’s melodies. It seems true to form that ‘modern’ tunes have been used to carry Shakespeare’s words; popular music played such a big part in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and Faustini’s composition, even at it’s most crowbarred, appeases the academic in me and carries the words well. Actor, Colin James (Don John), adds a touch of rebelliousness with his talent on the electric guitar, shredding a version of the bridal march during the wedding scene. The music continues to embolden the period and is uplifting and energising for actor and audience alike.
The performances are mostly on-point. The company make use of the whole space, resulting in some brilliant moments of slap-stick and playfulness. Some lines are lost to bad diction, but it’s a wonder how well the volume of delivery and the subtly of performance works in this intimate space. Sometimes, stage actors struggle to adjust to smaller spaces and audiences can feel shouted out, but this company manage to pitch it perfectly. We are drawn into conversations that seem totally spontaneous and honest, spoken by people who are punters like us. This is by far and away my favourite feeling; we are all regulars and all of us undivided by a lack of theatrical convention – it’s welcoming, it breathes a new lease of life into this well-known story and it makes you want to play along.
Andrew Peacham (Don Predo) and Darren Latham (Claudio) give strong and subtle performances; moving seamlessly from boyish bravado to heartfelt sorrow. Also, Jeremy Small (Leonato) provides a capturing performance, convincing us of his “grey hairs and bruise of many days”.
The two principles, Christina Baston (Beatrice) and Vincent Andriano (Benedick), are really wonderful. They have a rapport not only with the text, but with each other that is a joy to watch. Baston and Andriano’s mastery of the language and ease of expression provide us with crystal clear characters – wrapping us up in their wit, their temperaments and their unexpressed love for one another. Better performances of these much-loved characters are hard to come by and worth the trip to Euston by themselves.
Fox & Chips Director, Vince Gill, seems to have a very delicate touch. The general feel is one of ‘let the actors find their way’, which, for the most part, seems the logical approach to a performance of this nature. The actors must overcome different audience configurations each night, different interruptions (“Can I have a pint please? What crisps do you have, mate?”) and different obstacles that change the usable space – so trying to pin down the imagery of the play would be nigh on impossible. The actors move about the pub as their own impulses dictate and as a result, the play embeds itself into the homely space – it’s voyeuristic, the performances feel fresh, and it provides a laugh-a-minute first half.
However, there are some apparent problems with this directorial style. It’s either a brave or a listless director who offers such freedom to a company, and under such conditions the company itself must be super strong and ‘on-the-level’ to the last for it to succeed. I would argue that, although some of the cast thrive in this ‘hands-off’ environment, not everybody does, and certain scenes were muddy and dislocated from the whole. Having said that, watching the actors juggle the text, the space, the (increasingly pissed) audience, and each other is always interesting, even if it isn’t always ‘working’.
This play isn’t perfect (What play is?). It has an unruliness that is hit and miss. However, there are some unmissable performances and I was in fits of laughter more often than not.
All that aside, there is one golden reason to support this play; their focus on inclusion and accessibility. This company works hard for an underappreciated audience; the ‘regulars’. Those who love a good story but detest the middle-class ritual of a night at the theatre, those who like the idea of grabbing a drink mid-monologue and watching The Bard sprawled out on a sofa – this play was made for you.
Fox & Chips set out to bring a classic play back to where it began and for those it was intended for. For that, they deserve a full and lively boozer, brimming with folk who may or may not have given Shakespeare a moment’s thought before but are bound to leave with smiles on their faces.
This lot have what it takes to charm us with their neighbourly style, their informal spirit and impish whimsy.
So, pop in for a pint, some prose and a packet of crisps.
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