Like many amateur dramatic societies, the Stratford Players are looking at financial hardships and the potential loss of their performance venue. By appealing to Hollywood agents, they hope to boost publicity, raise essential funds and live to tread the boards for years to come.
Meanwhile, fading American action hero, Jefferson Steel, finds the idea of playing King Lear in Stratford appealing and hopes this will raise his profile, boost his movie career and keep alive his dreams of dominating Hollywood. What he doesn’t realise is that his agent has set him up to play King Lear not in the Bard’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, but the sleepy tiny Suffolk village of Stratford St John…
This is a topical, witty comedy by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, showing the best and worst sides of theatre, from the diva tantrums and heightened emotions, the misconstrued relationships between cast members, cynical pursuit by the gutter press, and jealousies and infighting, to the “redemptive power of theatre” as individuals bond together to create something very positive while they “live the dream”.
There is a huge amount to enjoy in the character-driven performances, which showcase not just the comic talents of the cast but also a brief insight into their abilities to perform classic Shakespeare through the excerpts from King Lear. Director Anthony von Roretz has brought together a cohesive ensemble production with a cast who gel well together, providing credible and recognisable characters from the am-dram world.
Samantha Luckman is charmingly convincing as King Lear’s long suffering director as she cajoles and massages the egos of her narcissistic leading men, encourages and guides the entire company, and attempts to keep control of the divergent personalities within her cast. David Rhodes is splendidly grandiose as pompous Nigel Dewbury, as well as showing hidden depths of the reluctant supporting man throughout the Shakespearean vignettes.
Paul Chalmers brings depth and honesty to the role of the bumptious Steele, with a valiant attempt at a consistent American drawl. I would like to see him being even more overbearingly arrogant on first meeting his alter ego to really emphasise his character’s mellowing personality throughout the play, but Chalmers does show Steele’s vulnerability beneath his brash exterior, especially in regards to his daughter and his personal insecurities, that add depth to his role alongside his capacity for comedy, and his switch to the dramatic persona of Lear is commendable as Steele learns to cope with the delivery of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Chalmers shares a very believable rapport with Fabia Alexander as his daughter, Jessica, who in turn brings spirit and vivacity to the character with a mix of rebellion, resilience and vulnerability, a convincing American accent and honesty to the role. Lauren Bell is a difficult character to ‘flesh out’ in comparison with the other roles, but Sophie Newton succeeds in making the part her own on her return to the stage, showing promise for the future in both comedy and Shakespearean roles.
Sally Marshall (Mary) and Kris Hamilton-Brain (Dennis) are wonderful in their roles; both have superb comic timing and physicality, visually and delivering dialogue, and both exhibit the skill of performing comedy sincerely and earnestly, not forcing the comedy but letting it flow innately with a combination of naturalistic and heightened styles.
Colin Hayman’s well designed and constructed set makes excellent use of the performance space on multiple levels, which are well used alongside von Roretz’s directional tool of seating King Lear’s director and prompt on the steps in the audience at various times. The crew and cast ensure that the many scene changes run smoothly, although voiceovers at the same time as music during some of these transitions are confusing, lacking clarity as they collide with each other and ultimately becoming an increasingly unnecessary irritant after the interval. However, Brian Waddingham’s wonderfully plush Shakespearean costumes for the Stratford Players’ performance of King Lear are superb.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Studio Theatre’s first production of their new season proves yet again that this is a very accomplished ‘bunch of amateurs’ who are able to put on a most agreeable evening of comedy and laughter! Continues until Saturday 19 October, 7.30pm each evening – catch it if you can!