The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare
Propeller
Hampstead Theatre
(2011)

The Comedy of Errors producyion photo by Manuel Harlan

Shakespeare is having a funny month in London. Following Josie Rourke's Much Ado about Nothing starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, presented in the style of Mamma Mia, Edward Hall's Propeller Company give us The Comedy of Errors using an ethos somewhere between Benny Hill and Looney Tunes. You will love it or hate it.

For 2¼ hours, the actors (and the word is correct since everyone in this company is male) run around manically, speaking Shakespeare's lines at breakneck speed as if in a race. Apart from the interval, there is barely a break in consistent mayhem that somehow works perfectly with this double helping of farce.

The Comedy of Errors is a relatively rarely produced play that features not one pair of non-matching twins like Twelfth Night but two pairs of identical twins to guarantee unbroken confusion both on and off stage until the traditional final scene of revelation and reconciliation.

What goes on along the way outrageously combines slapstick and clowning and could well leave you doubled up with laughter as pratfalls succeed each other, each accompanied by appropriate percussion, typically bells and drums in the fashion of a circus.

All starts calmly enough, as an old man is condemned to death by the local Duke. Already, though, you know that something odd is going on as the accompanying band is clad in football shirts and sombreros, setting the action in Mexico or thereabouts, while the Duke looks resplendent in a spangly red suit more commonly associated with gigolos.

We then cut to the arrival in Ephesus of Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio, respectively played by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Richard Frame. They are soon matched, though never simultaneously on stage, by their namesakes from Ephesus, portrayed by Sam Swainsbury and Jon Trenchard.

The costumes alone would be worth the entrance price, with the masters each looking like renegades from a gay disco, while their servants (respectively reminiscent of Jim Davidson and Tony "Baldrick" Robinson) appear to be members of a Bay City Rollers tribute band.

For the remainder of the performance, the pairings are mistaken for each other in every kind of combination. Wives try to have their wicked way with those who are not their husbands, lock husbands and servants out while inviting others in and get hot and bothered in every sense.

Jewellers give jewellery to the wrong people, prostitutes get the wrong clients and the poor old servants spend most of the evening get beaten around the head for misdemeanours that for once are not their own.

With lashings of pop music played live, the whole performance is wild from start to finish as the leading quartet get great support from Robert Hands playing a suitably pseudo-feminine Adriana, the unfortunate wife, Dominic Tighe as a Latino policeman and, last but not least, Tony Bell enjoying himself as Pinch, an evangelical conjuror who uses a lit sparkler in ways that should not be seen let alone tried at home by members of a family audience.

Shakespeare will either be laughing in his grave or rolling in it at the liberties that have been taken with his comedy. One hopes that having the sense of humour to write this play, he would have nothing but praise for an inventive if highly novel production that forms part of a Propeller double bill with Richard III.

This production was reviewed in Sheffield by Velda Harris and in Edinburgh by Seth Ewin

Reviewer: Philip Fisher