The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Francis Beaumont
Mercury Theatre Company, the Young Vic and BITE:05, Barbican as part of the Young Genius season
Barbican Theatre
(2005)

The latest young genius offered to us by the Young Vic at the Barbican was young a very long time ago. Francis Beaumont, who is now probably best remembered for his collaborations with John Fletcher, was a contemporary of Shakespeare and this play is two years shy of its four hundredth anniversary.

In Anna Mackmin's production, it is at times very entertaining and at others rather wearing. The style is reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail crossed with Les Visiteurs. Tongues are determinedly in cheeks as tales of romance and derring-do are presented in a variety of unusual ways.

The most romantic story of all is that of the lead actor, Rafe Spall. He is the son of another actor, Timothy Spall and, reputedly, has the same name as the character that he plays because his father was in this role on the might of the the younger Spall's birth. Even Beaumont wouldn't have dared include that in his play!

The early humour rests around the intrusion of heckling members of the audience, interrupting a story of inept knights and ordinary folk in medieval times. If this had been the Labour Party conference the day before opening, they would have been marched out of the auditorium and accused of breaking the Prevention of Terrorism Act. In the gigantic, sound-swallowing black box that Jonathan Fensom has made of the Barbican Theatre, they are welcomed with laughter offstage and bemusement on it.

They make a bid for young Rafe the grocer's apprentice to enter the fray and become a stage hero for an evening. He takes on the honorary title of Knight of the Burning Pestle although, to the uninitiated, his weapon looks more like a baseball bat .

Two parallel tales of love for pretty young Luce, played touchingly by Toby Dantzic, would have been standard stuff, as an upper class wimp Master Humphrey (Spencer Brown) and a more dangerous and exciting rival Jasper (Ryan Early) fought for her hand. Beaumont has other ideas for his subversion of the romantic recipe.

As the lovers' tale and those of their parents plays, Rafe in modern dress yearns to become a Don Quixote and plays the part admirably assisted by a memorable crew. His Sancho comes complete with West Ham shirt, Rocinante is a neighing bicycle and the dwarf is diminutive but wears a black puffa jacket unknown in the Middle Ages.

Cheered on from the audience by the loud grocer and his common wife (Felix Dexter and Ingrid Lacey), Rafe gets involved in increasingly difficult tasks leading up to a romantic - and, in his case, sad - ending with lovers united via a coffin and the guest from the audience ready for one.

At its best, The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a hilarious, rip-roaring comedy that can compete with the films referred to above. However, somewhere along the way Beaumont or Miss Mackmin run a little short of ideas and the novelty begins to wear thin.

Even so, both Young Vic and the director are to be congratulated in reviving this play with song and dance and allowing a new generation to see the work of a playwright whose experimental writing still seems fresh almost 400 years after his early death, in the same year as Shakespeare.

Philip Fisher