"Bard’s Words with Cool Jazz"
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 26/02/17

Another stunning production from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, in Shakespeare’s less often seen comedy, reckoned by some scholars to be his first-ever solo-creation.

In The Redgrave Theatre, a full house chatters in eager anticipation until abruptly silenced by a thrilling blast of notes from an unseen, but really cool jazz trumpet, reminiscent of a needful call to attention that probably quelled undisciplined ‘groundlings’ in the reign of the first Elizabeth. The house-lights fade out fast.

The two Gentlemen; Proteus played by Bradley Banton, and Valentine, by Chris Jenks, confidently enunciate the lengthy explanation that assures us of their different attitudes to Love and women and more pertinently, their affirmation of loyalty to one another, with tragic consequences when vows are dishonoured; a plot-device that Shakespeare used throughout his canon.

Director, Bill Alexander has encouraged a sense of fun among his cast, the actors come over relaxed and enjoying themselves in this slightly ridiculous comedy, well-presented on a wonderful set designed by Eleanor Bull, with timeless costumes by Anisha Fields. And Jessica Edkins’s sound-scape makes an invaluable contribution, harmonising subtly with Joe Stathers’s atmospheric lighting scheme.

Feisty females complement the comparatively staid, leading males. Alice Kerrigan as Speed, a clownish servant in colorful trousers, keeps the pace up, in both her action and speeches, while Eleanor House as a servant, Pantina offers some witty banter. Georgia Frost gives a delightful interpretation of the conceited but eligible young spinster, Julia, glad to be fancied by Proteus. She confides in Lucetta, competently portrayed by Rachel Partington despite that the role offers limited scope for dramatic impact.

Emily Williams is Sylvia, the love object of Valentine, wonderfully off-hand and quick with verbal ‘put-downs.’ She plays infuriatingly ‘hard to get’ so we see less of her than might be desired, an opinion also held by Turio. He wants to see lots more of Sylvia, until he realizes he’ll have to fight to win her. Modestly played by Billy Harris, Turio, decides cowardice is the better part of valour.

The Fool of course, scorns ‘never to work with animals’ so Ellis Duffy leads ‘Crab,’ his docile Labrador, which never deigns to even bark, it is so well-behaved. Ellis is amusingly talkative.

The many characters prevent me naming everyone but three ‘outlawed gentlewomen’ deserve a mention. Their sex and the slight liberties taken with the script, give opportunity to more than equal performances by men who traditionally play these parts. Equal opportunity for women is a theme hinted at through many of Shakespeare’s plays and these three ‘Ungentle Ladies’ might have ‘well-amused’ him.

A terrific fight breaks out between Valentine & Proteus, who has switched his ardour from Julia to Sylvia and treacherously tried to usurp his friend in Sylvia’s heart. The fight, arranged by Jonathan Howell, is a furiously convincing battle and precedes a too-convenient climb-down by Proteus. He begs forgiveness, and in one of the Bard’s reasoned passages, Valentine justifies accepting Proteus’s apology with enough sincerity to make it plausible.

When Julia returns to claim her Proteus, a double marriage is arranged with Sylvia & Valentine, No concluding gavotte to close this performance but even without it, everyone feels overjoyed so it ends well enough with rapturous applause and remarkably energetic bows in a panto-style walk-down.

Meet The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Redgrave Theatre, until Friday, 3rd March

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