A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
Derby Playhouse
(2004)

Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dram (Derby Playhouse)
BNottom, Titania and fairies

It's been nine eventful, sometimes troublesome years since Derby Playhouse presented a Shakespeare play. Financial problems which meant the management were forced to choose productions with small casts appear, thankfully, to be over. The current creative team have been in post for almost two years; their productions tend to be safe choices although they put a slightly unusual interpretation on them.

You might think that putting on one of the Bard's most performed plays is lacking imagination and you'd be right. It would be excusable if Karen Louise Hebden's production gave us a new insight into Shakespeare's genius - but there's a slightly sinister feel to this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream which means that some of the comedy suffers.

Little of the blame can be placed on the actors; most of them are excellent. But on the night I saw the play it seemed to be lacking a spark which would make it memorable rather than adequate.

One of the main problems seems to be with Rosie Alabaster's set. The wood in which a large percentage of the action takes place has none of the magical qualities you would expect. Some of the trees are like telegraph poles; the rest resemble masts with protruding rungs so that Puck can climb them.

The set does have its good points: a stream on one side of the stage is used by Puck for his first imaginative entrance and is the resting place for Hermia after an altercation with Helena; and a ladder leads to a comical exit by the mechanicals who are frightened silly when they see Bottom wearing his ass's head.

Alexi Kaye Campbell's performance as Oberon is also sinister. There are times when he almost adopts a pantomime baddie stance as he gets Puck to do his bidding. Kelvin Towse's music often sounds slightly menacing rather than ethereal and occasionally you're expecting to see Ali Baba strutting across the stage.

The successes of the show are undoubtedly the mechanicals. Conor Moloney is a real ass as Bottom and Adam Stafford a masterful Peter Quince. Derbyshire-born Steven Blakeley, the first Derby Playhouse Youth and Community Theatre member to return as a professional, is striking as Flute; his death scene as Thisbe in the wedding feast play is superb.

Paul Ewing is a lithe, extremely agile Puck who is very impressive in the second half when he flies effortlessly across the stage. The fairies, provided by the Egg Theatre Academy at the Playhouse, are also enchanting. Tina Machugh's lighting is striking and atmospheric.

But while individually the actors give creditable performances, not enough is made of the fighting between Lysander and Demetrius nor the animosity between Helena and Hermia. These can be some of the funniest scenes in the Shakespearean canon but here they invoke moderate amusement rather than hilarity.

It's good to have the Bard back on the Playhouse stage after such a long absence - but it's disappointing that this Dream tries to be too clever and doesn't bring out all the play's magical, comedic qualities.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs until July 3rd

Reviewer: Steve Orme