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Time After Time

Frank Bramwell
Heart Productions
St John and St Peter's Church, Birmingham

A new play by a first-time author performed by a fledgling company in a ground-breaking venue sounds like a recipe for disaster. But not when you put as much organisation and enthusiasm into the venture as Stafford-based Heart Productions - motto: "theatre with a beat!"

Former business manager of Stoke-on-Trent's Victoria Theatre Frank Bramwell has been working on Time After Time for a considerable period, holding workshops over two years before it had its first staged reading.

Then came the search for an appropriate venue. There are plenty of traditional places in the Second City but few spaces to accommodate a couple of hundred people in a relaxed, inviting setting. The transformation of St John and St Peter's Church just off Ladywood Middleway - it is still a place of worship - into an arts centre is doubly welcome. Not only does it offer a creditable alternative to the smaller venue, it will also help Birmingham in its bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2008.

It would all have been an anti-climax if Time After Time had not been as fresh and original as its surroundings. But it's an ambitious offering that gives you an insight into William Shakespeare's background which will appeal even to theatregoers who are not Bard worshippers.

Shakespeare, agitated that he might not be able to deliver his next play on time, falls asleep and finds himself haunted by his own creations. Time After Time consists of a series of dream sequences in which Shakespeare's relationships are intertwined with those of Hamlet, Macbeth, Oberon, Titania and others.

Fourteen actors, all but one from the Birmingham area, take on the 36 characters as the Bard muddles through one crisis after another. The production might have had a Pythonesque feel to it as it moves from one haunting scene to the next. But skilful writing and Marcus Fernando's tight direction ensure the transitions never jar or seem out of place.

Little is known about the real life of Shakespeare but Bramwell packs virtually every myth and legend about the Bard into Time After Time as well as references to Shakespeare In Love. There are profound lines such as Ariel's "This world is your world; without it we would be naught" and plenty of visual comedy to go with laughs from parodies such as "Is this a pen I see before me?"

The central role of the Bard is in the capable hands of Canadian John Huston who brings energy, zest and pathos to the role. We feel sympathy for him when he is accused of being a common thief and a plagiariser, and when his so-called friend Ben Johnson won't stand up for him. Huston who looks just right for the role comes across as a loveable rogue whose tortured genius will eventually win through.

There are excellent performances from vivacious Jen Rigby as Will's wife Anne, the Princess and Ariel; Philip de Ville whose booming voice is ideal for Will's domineering father and the king; James Webster whose clarity of speaking helps him to move effortlessly between the roles of Will's brother, Punch and printer Richard Field; and 15-year-old Adam Linney who is a remarkably mature Hamlet.

Frank Bramwell's original idea was to have a chorus to link the action. Marcus Fernando turned the one character into three Goths, masked figures who owe more to the weird sisters of Macbeth than anyone from Titus Andronicus. Elinor d'Angelis, Beth Cohen and Kaz Luckins are menacing, magical and mesmerizing as the occasion demands.

Mark Taylor's original music is hauntingly apt and Gail Prosser's set is sparse yet cleverly functional.

The play is slightly long at two hours 45 minutes (or were the chairs simply too hard?) and the odd lighting and sound cue were slightly out. The real pity was that more people didn't make the effort to see it. Overall Time After Time is a superb, delightful production which is by no means much ado about nothing and should certainly be as you like it.

Reviewer: Steve Orme