Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

As You Like It

William Shakespeare
Palace Theatre, Watford
(2008)

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Imaginatively staged, this entertaining revival of As You Like It is the work of five gifted young women: director Brigid Larmour and her designer Hannah Clark; lighting director Natasha Chivers; plus movement choreographed by Shona Morris, with Kate Walters as fight director. But the chaps get their oar in with Dominic Muldowney’s tuneful settings for the songs.

There are no big stars and among the familiar faces only two actors mention having worked with the RSC. But under Ms Larmour’s direction the cast bring fresh and accessible life to Shakespeare’s most enchanting pastoral comedy.

She took over the helm of the refurbished Palace Theatre less than two years ago, astonished to learn that the last time it had staged its own Shakespeare production was way back in 1976. There may have been a worry or two that perhaps local audiences are not all that keen on the Bard, but this well-focused production in late-Victorian costume will surely win over Watford doubters.

Palace regulars will be surprised to find that the two front rows have been removed, making way for a deep-thrust apron stage ringed by footlights, which allows some of the action to take place in front of the main curtains, a reminder that the theatre was built in 1908 as home for music hall and variety.

In fact the production is seen as coming to life on a stage empty save for an actress opening a theatrical trunk and trying on her costume before we are whisked away to a scene-setting parley at the start of the play.

In Clark’s spare design even the Forest of Arden is no more than a small single tree onto which, first winter snowflakes, then the pages of Orlando’s verses and finally the flower buds of summer flutter down from the flies.

Her romantic longings abetted by Kelly Williams as a sunny cousin Celia, the discovery of the evening is Lisa Jackson, a Rosalind who combines dancerly grace with an astonishing ability to deliver her witty lines to the back of the stalls. With her powerful projection, attractive good looks and instinctive feel for shaping Shakespeare’s language, this is a performance of real promise.

Paul Woodson plays her merry Orlando, less the gobsmacked lover than a smiling and resourceful hero, who takes on Charles the Wrestler (William Kenning) in a tough fight to the finish that looks as if both contenders will be bruised by the end of the run.

Then off to the forest for the rest of the play (except for a few brief forays in front of the curtains) and to an Arden troupe of melancholy exiles led by veteran Nick Sampson who doubles convincingly as the opposing Dukes, one vengeful the other turning his privation into privilege.

Paul Brightwell is a genial but philosophic Jacques, while Anil Desai’s jesting Touchstone, colourfully costumed as a circus barker, is more companionable than the usual condescending townie. In fact throughout the cast one discovers freshness and originality, including Helen Baker as a rustic but decidedly pretty Audrey, Neil Henry as a sweet-tempered swain Silvius and Claire Prempeh as his love object Phebe, who instead has her heart set on a mismatch with Ms Jackson’s ‘Ganymede’ disguised in bowler hat and trousers.

Simeon Moore in a shiny topper plays Orlando’s brother Oliver with a cruel streak that reminded me of angry exchanges at PMQs in the Commons, while Edward Clayton toils as the gardener and family retainer, Adam.

Finally seasoned musical actress Esther Biddle, cast as both court musician Amiens and the goddess Hymen, lends her pure mezzo-soprano and accordion accompaniment to melodious vocals that instead of slowing the action, for once add magic to the moment.

"As You Like It", second in the Watford Palace centenary season, continues until 26 April.

Reviewer: John Thaxter