Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Love's Labour's Lost

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory
(2006)

In the court of the King of Navarre, words emerge like bees from a barn, as Wodehouse had it. As in Coward's sitting rooms, so here, chaps lounge around elegantly, ragging one another and, well, talking nonsense frankly.

So it's with some relief when the King and three of his chums take a solemn vow to renounce the world and embrace the life of academe. Bye bye booze, sayonara sleeping until noon, and, most particularly, good night sweet ladies.

Except the King couldn't have picked a worse time. Enter the Princess of France with three languorously plush ladies-in-waiting and the first lesson for the would-be scholars is that "virtue is insufficient temptation," to quote Shaw.

Shakespeare probably came up with the plot for Love's Labours Lost - one of his very few original schemata - on the back of a Tudor beermat. There's no disguising of gender, no flights into the forest and no mistaken identification.

In truth, not a lot happens and the appeal of the play resides in persiflage and general horsing around. Much of the former is now deeply obscure and relies in any case on an appetite for tortuous wordplay and punning likely to appeal only to only hardened fans of Marx Brothers films, Countdown and sudoku.

Mercifully, Dan Hilton, artistic director of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, is at his best and SATTF's trademark qualities of attention to text, intelligence and clarity of verse-speaking, and sheer vim, keep things nipping along nicely. And when one tires from time to time of staying afloat in the torrent of words, Paul Currier emerges to throw us a line with a broad comic turn as Don Adriano de Armado, all moustache, mangled vowels and matador-style outfit.

The "tipping point" is the scene in which the King and his three chums reveal their intention, one after another, of foreswearing their vow of celibacy and pitching their woo. Each man in turn hides himself on hearing another approaching and eavesdrops before emerging to upbraid him indignantly.

But it is in the second half that the play really takes off as with some inspired silliness from Paul Currier in particular which had the audience roaring. Aged pedant Nathaniel is pressed into taking part in a masque for the court and in the greatest piece of miscasting since Cliff Richard took on the role of Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, takes on the part of Alexander the Great.

As is customary with SATTF productions, props are kept to a minimum, Hilton confident in his cast's ability to deliver the text without distraction. The Edwardian-style costumes by Vicki Cowan-Ostersen are elegant and unfussy.

This is a fine piece of ensemble work and while it is invidious to single out actors, Saskia Portway as the Princess and Matthew Thomas as Berowne shine particularly brightly in this, SATTF's 12th Shakespearean production.

And, unfortunately, unless additional financial backing is found, it could be the last. Poor houses for the company's recent Titus Andronicus have brought SATTF, which exists on a wing and a prayer, to the brink of financial collapse.

The company, which was founded seven years ago with the aim of bringing Shakespeare to audiences in the south west has built a national reputation and in 2004 was invited by the Barbican to bring productions of Macbeth and The Changeling to the venue formerly home to the heavily-subsidised RSC.

Anyone able and willing to help keep SATTF afloat and delivering high-quality theatre is asked to contact Sophie Jerrold at SATTF on 0117 963 3054.

Reviewer: Pete Wood