"Ambitious casting but safe production"
by Stephen Bellamy for remotegoat on 07/06/15

Newly-formed Cattywhampuss Theatre Company describe themselves as ‘gender, colour, age and size brave when looking for the right performers’ and have chosen Shakespeare’s Hamlet for their inaugural production. The cast of eight women and two men present a version of the play where Hamlet, Claudius and Horatio (amongst others) are cast against their conventional genders- a brave but ultimately successful choice.

What could feel like a gimmick instead feels like the only sensible decision thanks to some brilliant individual performances that offer new insight and add new dimensions to characters we have seen portrayed many times before. As the titular character, Jenny Owen is superb. She brings a physical awkwardness to the role that brilliantly captures the madness of Hamlet. Switching from intense fast-paced dialogue to softly spoken but confident soliloquies, Owen is consistently engaging and never quite lets the audience know whether Hamlet really has succumbed to madness or whether it is all manipulation. She is ably supported by Rachel Watson as Ophelia who delivers a wonderfully understated portrayal of innocence; her descent into madness has great emotional resonance- thanks to both the subtlety of Watson’s performance and a well-balanced portrayal of anger and grief from Hayley Irving as Laertes. Allison Saxton is a commanding and menacing Claudius, whilst Christopher Bamforth steals every scene he is in as the bumbling and rambling Polonius.

However, as good as the performances are, once you get past the casting, everything in the show feels a little too safe for a theatre company that are aiming to break boundaries. Allison Saxton’s direction has a lightness of touch to it, and whilst this is beneficial in allowing her actors to flourish, a firmer hand could have shaped the play into something even greater. The production as a whole feels tame and a little restrained and some scenes feel like a missed opportunity to try something new. On the few occasions when the show breaks free, there are some delightful moments, a simple gag involving Polonius and a mobile phone adds a lovely contemporary twist and the graveside confrontation of Hamlet and Laertes fizzes with energy and emotion.

For a first production, this is an enjoyable show and will hopefully serve as a foundation for Cattywhampuss to build upon. My hope for them as a company is that with future shows they will be as brave with directorial and theatrical decisions as they are with their casting. If they can, their next show will definitely be one not to miss.

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