The Three Musketeers
Alexandre Dumas, in a new version by Ken Ludwig
Bristol Old Vic
You know you're likely to be on to a winner when the Front of House staff are buzzing about a production. "I think you'll enjoy this," the woman at the box office assured me with a grin as I collected my tickets. "It's got something in it for everyone". As the opening scene began, and two bare-chested men moved balletically across a stunning set, muscles rippling in a slow motion sword fight, I settled down in my seat (as my ten year old son sat on the edge of his), and instantly felt moved to agree with her.
Writer Ken Ludwig's intention here was that the audience should leave the theatre "feeling exhilarated". His fast-paced, humorous and accessible script, has a pinch of a modern flavour (largely in the form of Samantha Robinson's sassy younger sister for D'Artagnan), and some great character development for the actors to work with, which ensures that the experience is precisely that.
Director Timothy Sheader and Designer Laura Hopkins have masterfully painted this production with enough glamour and glitz to create a sense not only of seventeenth century France, but also of 1940s Hollywood. Rita Hayworth-esq wigs sit alongside period panniers, (that cumbersome accessory which made a positive attribute of child-bearing hips). Plush velvet cloaks, printed silks and vast hoods combine to create sumptuous costumes Bette Davis herself would have been proud to wear. The Ball scene provides further opportunity for a decidedly festive glitter, with an all-gold wardrobe and beautiful masks. Here too, there's just a sniff of Hollywood as the first dance, at the foot of a vast staircase, is more reminiscent of a Forties' waltz than French baroque. The combined effect is as seamless as it is dazzling.
The cast is a twelve-strong faultless ensemble. George Rainsford is a memorable D'Artagnan, exuding fresh-faced vigour and bubbling exuberance. Porthos, played by a wonderfully chilled Paul Agar, has an irresistible flippancy ("You go first, I'll follow if it looks pleasant" he announces to his three companions). Vyelle Croom's Aramis has a smouldering sex appeal that has D'Artagnan's young sister, Sabine, hanging wistfully on his every word. Gerald Kyd gives a commanding performance as Athos, with his troubled, emotional core. Together, the three are every bit the "tall, muscular, virile men" Sheader was searching for in the casting process. They present a lovely, languid 'Frenchness': they'll not be hurried, riled nor browbeaten.
Laura Rogers' Milady and Robin Sebastian's Cardinal Richlieu provide the production's anti-heroes, and in their characterisations, costumes and settings, lend the production its Disney bad-guys (mercifully without the melodramatic 'boo-hiss' of panto). Both revel in a camp and colourful villany. Roger's emotional scenes in the second half are all the more impressive, therefore, for the contrast they provide.
The fight scenes, naturally, pepper the production and are attacked with gusto by all (and then mimicked and reproduced in the interval by almost every child in the audience!). Fight director, Richard Ryan makes imaginative and, at times, filmic use, of stair cases and ramps, bridges and walkways.
The Old Vic excels with this festive treat. It is a well-crafted and captivatingly performed visual spectacle that will appeal to all generations. Everything you could ask for in a Christmas production.
"The Three Musketeers" is at the Bristol Old Vic until 20th January
Reviewer: Allison Vale