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The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer
The Guildford Shakespeare Company
St Mary’s Church, Guildford

Bea Holland and Lauren Silver in Wife of Bath's tale Credit: Mike Eddowes
Bea Holland and Matt Pinches (with Lauren Silver in the middle) Credit: Mike Eddowes
The Pardoner's Tale Credit: Mike Eddowes

I had wondered what this young, energetic and inventive company would make of the Canterbury Tales and, as usual, it not only comes up with the goods but exceeds all expectations with a vibrant, lively and up-to-date version, a joint effort written by the company.

There were twenty-nine pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales, but they are represented here by only five actors. They have chosen seven of the stories of ‘infinite variety’, from the Shakespearean "Knight’s Tale" of rivalry and combat to the hilariously presented "Nun’s Priest’s Tale" where puppets are used (very effectively) as the farmyard animals, and the cock Chanticleer has the hens as his ‘backing group’.

Music is used throughout the show, played on a variety of instruments and used in many different ways. In "The Miller’s Tale" they don’t shy away from displaying bare bottoms, but a musical note bleeps out most of the rude words, and very funny it is too. Exceedingly beautiful music is played on a flute (composer Mary McAdam) in the heart-rending "Prioress’s Tale" where every woman in the audience must have felt the pain of the widow losing her beloved son.

It was a stroke of genius to play "The Wife of Bath’s Tale" as a teacher instructing students in their roles, and even more hilarious when teacher Bea Holland, thoroughly enjoying herself, takes over the lead role. In fact, it seems that the whole cast are also thoroughly enjoying every part; the audience senses this and the feeling is shared.

The other members of the cast are Philip Benjamin, Matt Pinches, the silver-voiced Lauren Silver and Ben Tolley, each one playing multiple parts and changing characters with every switch of designer Dora Schweitzer’s costumes.

If you are not totally familiar with Chaucer’s Tales, I’d advise reading the synopsis in the programme before the show starts, but it’s not really essential as this version opens up a whole new level of understanding, something one member of the cast admitted was beyond her at school.

Abigail Anderson directs a fast-paced joyous production—and how she keeps control of it I cannot imagine, but it works like a dream.

St Mary’s Church, the oldest building in Guildford, lends itself perfectly to a theatrical production with differing levels making it possible to create good sight lines. Action takes place all around the audience, even taking in the pulpit. The production is in-the-round with a very small stage, making the very realistic fight between the knights a little too close for comfort, but also having the effect of making the audience feel part of the show.

In the original, the pilgrims had to choose which they thought was the best tale and the winner would receive a prize. This task was given to the audience with a show of hands to vote, and the audience is also involved frequently throughout, making it a truely shared experience.

When Sarah Gobran and Matt Pinches founded the company in 2006, their aim was to make Shakespeare enjoyable and accessible to all. They certainly succeeded in this with many who hated the Bard at school being completely converted. I believe they have now very successfully done the same for Chaucer.

In the chatter after the show the word I heard most frequently on everyone’s lips was “brilliant”, and I can’t argue with that.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor