Guildford Shakespeare Company
Bandstand, Guildford Castle Gardens
Once again, the Guildford Bandstand has put on all its finery to welcome the Guildford Shakespeare company for their first outdoor show this season, and Neil Irish has provided a magnificent 1950s seaside setting consisting of the Illyria Grand Hotel and a pier extending right underneath the big old oak tree, a multilayered set which gives plenty of scope for action and variation—and a lot of exercise for the performers.
The company has taken the bard at his word—“If music be the food of love, play on”—and we are treated to some slightly bawdy ‘end of the pier’ songs, some banjo playing and popular music from the period as well as some beautiful original music composed for the show by Peter Lole, but just as we are settling down and enjoying the music the shipwreck is upon us and a wet, shocked and shivering Viola is helped from the sea.
This is Francesca Baker, who is just about to graduate from the Guildford School of Acting, and she is absolutely brilliant in the role. Every expression, every gesture tells a story and her attempts at being convincingly masculine (when disguised as a boy) are extremely funny. Tom Richardson’s Duke Orsino is, of course, in a world of his own, his love fixated on the Countess Olivia and unaware of the lovely woman by his side in boy’s clothing.
Most of the comedy in this play is centred around the manservant Malvolio and James Burton gives us an expertly timed, perfectly judged and very believable performance of insufferable pomposity, vanity and disdain for the lower orders who decide—and who can blame them—to take him down a peg or two. This is where the fun really takes over, becoming truly hilarious when he turns up in his ridiculous yellow outfit, smiling manically with the belief that he is pleasing Olivia who, he thinks, is in love with him.
In this part of the play, a brightly painted a seaside beach hut is of paramount importance. It serves first as a hiding place as the conspirators listen to Malvolio reading his letter, then as his prison when they lock him in—it’s other function I leave to the imagination but somehow a very surprised Sir Andrew Aguecheek ends up in the sea.
Alex Scott Fairley is Sir Andrew, played beautifully deadpan but this amazing man has enough comedy in his every movement to keep the audience in stitches. Rosalind Blessed thoroughly enjoys herself as Feste, her exaggerated, hammed-up piano playing so over-the-top that paradoxically I thought she could really play, and perhaps she can, but not this time, and this is a ‘fool’ who is no fool. A sideways look between her and Cesario shows that she knows exactly what is going on.
Great work too from Emma Fenney as a pert, pretty, cheeky maid Maria who also sings delightfully. Matt Pinches plays Sir Toby Belch with riotous abandon and a very large paunch, while Sarah Gobran gives her role of countess Olivia an elegant dignity, until she falls for Cesario and goes mad with lust.
The script has been trimmed a little but, as always, it is Shakespeare’s words, visual interpretation not scripted but supplied by the players under the expert direction of Charlotte Conquest, which cannot be an easy task with such extensive staging. As always, the cast put their heart and soul into the production and give us a tremendously entertaining theatrical evening.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor