The Canterbury Tales

Abigail Anderon, Philip Benjamin, Sarah Gobran, Bea Holland, Matt Pinches, Lauren Silver and Ben Tolley
Guildford Shakespeare Company
Stoke Park, Guildford

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The Cast of The Canterbury Tales Credit: Mark Dean
The Cast of The Canterbury Tales Credit: Mark Dean
The Cast of The Canterbury Tales Credit: Mark Dean

Puppets, innuendo, sword fights, audience interaction, carefully choreographed chaos and plenty of farts await in Guildford Shakespeare Company’s (GSC) unashamedly boisterous production of The Canterbury Tales. Forming the second part of its summer season, the playful script and caricatured performances provide the ultimate contrast to June’s dramatic Henry V.

Staged within Guildford’s Stoke Park, Neil Irish’s set with ‘makeshift’ stage suggests a strolling troupe, lending a festival feel to the overall show that starts and ends with enthusiastic musical numbers. With cast introductions that would suit Saturday morning children’s television and a whistlestop tour of the general prologue, it is clear from the offset that this is a production the audience can relax into, with little to no fourth wall and good-hearted, gentle audience interaction. To suggest it’s an easy watch does the company a disservice, however, as creating such a relaxed and off-the-cuff atmosphere takes great deal of skill and experience.

Audiences are now quite used to seeing Shakespeare with small casts, understanding often made easier through familiarity with the plots, but, as the company establishes from the off, while The Canterbury Tales are still very famous, most people would struggle to go into much detail beyond a reference to a hot poker they remember from their A-levels. It is therefore no easy task to stage seven of the tales with a cast of just five—but rise to the challenge they absolutely do.

Throughout the evening, the company presents "The Knight’s Tale", "The Nun’s Priest’s Tale", "The Miller’s Tale", "The Wife of Bath’s Tale", "The Pardoner’s Tale", "The Franklin’s Tale" and "The Summoner’s Tale", each presented in a different style and each championed by a member of the company who vie to win the audience vote for the favourite of the night. As a result, the consistently lively pace adds to the festival feel as, like bands on a main stage, each set has its fans and for those not so sure there isn’t a long wait for another completely different experience.

And different experiences they really are—in "The Knight's Tale", we see GSC closest to its Shakespearian roots with a tale of war, love and kinship. It is in this tale that Will Arundell and Matt Pinches demonstrate their swordsmanship whilst fighting for the same maiden. It is quite the shift of tone, therefore, when "The Nun’s Priest’s Tale" features singing puppets and farmyard-related audience interaction. With an Elvis style Chanticleer (the cockerel) and French-born but Penny Lane-bred Pertelote (his wife) ruling the roost, Nikita Johal and Sarah Gobran’s strangely sexy fox does not emerge victorious—even with a tail much like the Cheshire Cat’s grin.

Championing "The Miller’s Tale", Rosalind Blessed takes centre-stage, first as a drunk Glaswegian and then as the clueless husband of Alison, in a gloriously 1970s-style romp. With live sound effects, cartoonish props and facial expressions the Carry On cast would have been proud of how "The Miller’s Tale" delivers on laughs, bottoms and a Kath and Kim reference that wasn’t lost on the audience. Having gained such comedic momentum, it was a well-considered approach to span "The Wife of Bath" across both halves—giving the audience plenty of time to consider what it is women most desire. Presented through the lens of the BAPS society, Sarah Gobran champions this piece in the guise of an amateur theatre director who can’t resist working herself into the cast.

The remaining three tales remain at the same pace and, like the earlier stories, they contrast in style, "The Pardoner’s Tale" a grim tale of betrayal championed by a greasy and slightly creepy Matt Pinches and "The Franklin’s Tale" led by a glittery and magical Nikita Johal. In this tale, focussing on the power of promises, there are some genuine moments of pathos all the more powerful when nestled amongst so much comedy. And finally, "The Summoner’s Tale" as told through song, a slightly rushed affair but one with a very memorable finale.

With over 50 characters played by the talented company, there are plenty of enjoyable moments as well as plenty of enjoyable costumes and accents. Will Arundell makes every part his own, ranging from earnest Knight to camp amateur performer, showcasing his singing voice as well as movement skills. Rosalind Blessed transforms from royalty to a tree with ease, but particularly shines during "The Franklin’s Tale", drawing the audience in to witness the plight of a conflicted but loyal wife.

Making her mark as the Wife of Bath but equally comfortable as drunken rogue, flirtatious Alison and even the tail of a fox, GSC founder Sarah Gobran looks like she’s having a ball throughout alongside teasing fellow founder Matt Pinches. Ever the chameleon Matt transforms from Knight to chief fart maker via an Australian astrologist, bringing a very cheeky twinkle to the proceedings. And last but certainly not least, Nikita Johal plays an engaging range of characters from small boys to Queen Guinevere herself, each performed with great energy without ever going too far.

Through tight ensemble work, director Abigail Anderson creates a zany evening of entertainment brought to life by a multitalented and good-humoured cast not afraid to revel in the silliness. Whilst there are morals to the stories, the points aren’t laboured, so for some good summer fun this show will definitely amuse rather than confuse and leave you with a smile on your face.

Reviewer: Amy Yorston

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