The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer adapted for the stage by Tom Daplyn and Tacit Theatre
Tacit Theatre
Southwark Playhouse

Rosalind Blessed as Hostess and John Canmore as Mine Host Harry Bailey

This adaptation of several of the stories told by Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims played at Southwark last Christmas. Now it returns in a new production as the culmination of an autumn tour.

The theatre’s Vault performance space has been turned into the Tabard Inn with bar and barrels and a band already playing. The real Tabard was a hostelry just down the road in Borough High Street that was the starting point for the pilgrimage to Canterbury and where Chaucer begins his Tales. Mein Host is Harry Bailey, played by John Cadmore, who welcomes guests and introduces all the stories, of which we are offered seven of the many in Chaucer’s collection.

He begins by giving us a taste of ‘real’ English, delivering the opening dozen or so lines of the poem as Chaucer himself would have spoken it. It is not too difficult to read this fourteenth century text. If you pronounce everything that is there and recognize the rhymes as a guide you should be understand it and guess a meaning for the odd archaism. Just try that familiar opening:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…

Cadmore goes one better: he gives us what is believed to be fourteenth century accent and pronunciation which makes it largely incomprehensible! Fortunately he registers the lack of comprehension. Since that isn’t getting over for those not fluent in English, he promises help and finds a midway kind of delivery. He still uses a lot of archaic words but the actions of the Tabard Troubadours, as he calls them, make their meaning clear and in their dialogue they adopt a more updated language.

The ensemble of Rosalind Blessed, Ellie Moore, Tim Gutteridge, Loel Mellnger, Matt Salisbury and Cadmore take it in turns to tell the tales. They begin with a bawdy trio as told by the Miller, the Reeve and the Wife of Bath before becoming a little more serious with that of the Nun’s Priest.

After the interval there are the Friar’s Tale and those of the Summoner and the Pardoner. Around and between them are a series of folk songs. First comes one that predates Chaucer: “Sumer is icumin in”, which must be my favourite of all fugues, and then some of much later date that are as bawdy as Chaucer’s stories and acted out in similar fashion.

These actor / singer / instrumentalists have comic energy to bursting, strong voices and aren’t afraid of big gestures. The bawdiness is often graphic, though the rumpy pumpy on an upper level is shielded to defeat the prurient and save propriety’s blushes.

There is an intriguing use of props, including dismembered musical instruments, an inspired use of fruit and vegetables to transform the cast into a proud cock and his hens and instant role change to different character with new age or gender sometimes aided by a prop, headscarf or in one case an imaginatively bandaged head,

The cast may be getting it in the goolies but the audience is laughing in its gut. Respected civil servant at the court of Richard II, Geoffrey Chaucer was a scientist, philosopher but it is his poetry and especially these racy stories that ensure he’s not forgotten. Our laughter echoes that of our ancestors 600 years ago.

But it is the energy of the performers and the exuberance of their music that carry this show along. The pleasure comes from the performance, which carries more punch than the stories. This is a musical romp to sit back and enjoy ale in hand. You must buy it at the theatre bar beforehand.

Be warned that, though Rosalind Blessed’s buxom barmaid is polishing tankards on her titties, the Tabard isn’t actually serving.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton