The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare
Stafford Castle
(2004)

Get out your waterproofs, wellingtons and winter warmers because it's that time of year again - outdoor theatre on typical English summer evenings is back.

For their 14th offering, Stafford Festival Shakespeare have taken the Bard's comedy of twin mistaken identities and set it in a seaside town during World War II. Just after the play began, a deluge drenched the actors - the audience, apart from the front row, remained dry - and the setting was about as promising as a soggy Saturday in Skegness.

One or two of the actors seemed hesitant as they recited their lines while trying to overcome the elements. Fortunately they were wearing microphones or they would have had an impossible job to be heard above the rain as it rattled on the wooden stage. As the downpour subsided, the performances became stronger and overall the production sparkled like a summer's sojourn in St Tropez.

Director Peter Dayson's quirky interpretation comes at a time when people still have the D-Day anniversary at the forefront of their minds and when there's a growing perception that wartime camaraderie was preferable to today's insular living.

John Brooking's set is superbly atmospheric, a candy-striped town where Balthasar the merchant is a fishmonger who has his own stall and wears a much-needed sou'wester while Antipholus of Ephesus lives in the Hotel Phoenix with his wife as the proprietor.

There is plenty of experience in the cast, with Garfield Morgan a stately Egeon and Hildegard Neil a revered Abess.

Rene Zagger, formerly PC Nick Klein in The Bill, is making his open-air debut. But you'd never imagine he hadn't worked outdoors before as he is confident, commanding and composed as the naval officer Antipholus of Syracuse.

Julie-Kate Olivier, who played Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew at Stafford two years ago, gives an impeccable performance as Adriana and Richard Elis, formerly Huw Edwards in EastEnders, is a cunning Balthasar who has a pronounced limp when it suits him.

Daniel Fine is an impressive Antipholus of Ephesus, an angrier version of his twin, while Toby Walton and Peter Prentice make the most of their lines which they intersperse with slapstick as the two Dromios.

There are two problems with this production. The start drags as we hear Vera Lynne singing White Cliffs of Dover, the cast perform the hymn For Those In Peril on the Sea and everyone scurries for cover as a siren informs them of an air raid. And the scene changes take too long; some of the actors wander aimlessly across the set, in particular the handcuffed Egeon and the policeman who has arrested him just in case we've forgotten this part of the story.

Shakespeare has been credited with many new forms of writing - but this may be the first time he's been associated with saucy seaside humour. Even the Hotel Phoenix sign changes to "Hot ex" as passions are aroused in the second half.

Purists may not take too kindly to this version of The Comedy of Errors because there's no indication that the Bard intended it to include knockabout comedy. But on the evidence of the applause from a very appreciative audience, the treatment has made Shakespeare accessible. It's a clever, adventurous production which works.

"The Comedy of Errors" runs until July 10th

Reviewer: Steve Orme