In which David Walliams offers us his Bottom and his ass.
The penultimate play in the Michael Grandage season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, comes in niftily, at this early preview, at just over 2 and a quarter hours (including interval). Impressive really since Walliams’ deliberately overdone play-within-a-play death scene seemed to take up almost half of Act 2. Milking it was not the word. The milk was turning to cheese with thick slices of Frankie Howard ham on the side and, depending on your take on Walliams, also very funny.
If you find Walliams’ overtly camp schtick thoroughly resistible you might want to avoid the Noël Coward Theatre. There’s an awful lot to pack in around his performance. Three interconnecting plots – suggesting Shakespeare preempted Robert Altman – include 4 young lovers (Demetrius, Hermia, Helena and Lysander played winningly and energetically by Stefano Braschi, Susannah Fielding, Katherine Kingsley and Sam Swainsbury respectively) running around a wood in various states of undress, a group of bad actors trying to put on a play and and a group of hippy-ish fairies resembling the Lost Boys trying to put on a production of Hair.
Brief snatches of songs from, amongst others, Simon and Garfunkel and the Mammas and the Pappas punctuate the merry japes which come with enough trouser-dropping to suggest Grandage has drawn inspiration from Brian Rix. There’s so many honed torsos on display you might consider throwing away your subscription to Men’s Health magazine. What exactly was asked of the actors for the auditions, “come in a pair of tighty whities”?
The other big draw is the ever popular Sheridan Smith in the dual roles of Hippolyta and Titania. The latter is seen here as a sort of wild child queen of the fairies and in appearance hints that a revival of Cats is on its way and someone wants her considered for Grizabella the Glamour Cat. Much of the mayhem and running around is caused by the annoying fairy Puck (Gavin Fowler); he’s disposed to putting a magic, ahem, love juice on eyelids causing each victim to fall for the first person viewed on awakening. Titania’s lids are tinkered with, leading to her infatuation with Walliam’s Bottom. He’s already been magically transformed from silly arse to a braying ass acquiring Sir Les Patterson’s teeth in the process.
Near fatal sluggishness of the exposition-heavy, pre-forest opening scene is almost forgotten by the time we get to the much more entertaining Act 2. Kingsley, as ever, stands out and not just because she’s appropriately tall (she has a line mocking Hermia’s lack of height). We’re also treated to entertainingly eccentric wiggery by Richard Mawbey and, of course, it’s played out on settings by Christopher Oram with his signature magical crumblement against an enormous moon (for once, not a reference to Walliam’s Bottom).
Ushers, again, parade the stalls with signs warning not to take photographs. And if ever we need proof that there needs to be a announcement about switching of phones immediately before the show starts this was it. We spotted Mr Grandage occupying an aisle seat being prompted by the announcement.
But perhaps they might add another announcement about not deciding on a new hair style a few minutes into the performance. The woman in front of Phil suddenly decided to put her hair up into a bun, a task which employed hair grips and took several minutes to complete. Interestingly she’d changed her mind by Act 2 and it was down again. Mildly irritating and entertaining in almost equal measures, which just about sums up the whole evening.