Shakespeare's Globe / English Touring Theatre
Grand Theatre, Blackpool
At the time she was alive it would have been difficult to find anyone with a nice word to say about the title character.
‘Harlot Queen’ and ‘Protestant Witch’ to so many of her contemporaries, playwright Howard Brenton sets out to balance the books with this sprawling and hugely satisfying slice of revisionist history.
It’s a touring version of a production that proved a big hit when first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre two years ago. Now it’s been put on the road by English Touring Theatre, with some Arts Council backing, and it’s a considerable coup for this venue to be on its road map, the only date in the region.
The Grand is given a Globe makeover with some dangling light bulbs across the auditorium and Michael Taylor’s stage design completes the look with a Minstrels’ Gallery for the three musicians who provide a subtle soundscape to the action.
Brenton shifts the story backwards and forwards over 70 years, between the time of Anne Boleyn as consort to King Henry, and the accession to the English throne of James I.
This is no dry and dusty history lesson, however, but a witty and engrossing impression of the times that gave birth to our first Elizabethan age, and the subsequent reformation. It was a time of plot upon intrigue upon conspiracy that gave us the Church of England with the monarch at its head.
Jo Herbert is a feisty Anne, whose faith and perseverance supports her, even when her failure to provide a male heir dooms her to the executioner’s block. The actress was an equally spirited Rosalind in As You Like It, for ETT in Lancaster’s Williamson Park last summer.
In his show-stopping performance—and more than once this production is happy to let in a little ‘dead air’ as players extend their pause—James Garnon has King James live up to the epithet of “the wisest fool in Christendom”. He sets him somewhere between a gurning Eddie Izzard and a mesmeric Derren Brown.
Julius D’Silva is an oily Thomas Cromwell.
Overall though this is a lively and entertaining ensemble piece with a large cast of 19 doubling up at dizzying pace. It’s full of bawdy humour... and a Blackpool audience knows good bawdy when it hears it.
Whether Brenton meant to or not it leaves you with an appreciation of the moderating influence of the monarch in our own Elizabethan age.
It continues here until Saturday.
Reviewer: David Upton