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Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Storyhouse, Chester

By Nigel Smith

TO contrast with their dark and politically savvy Julius Caesar, Storyhouse have turned to one of Shakespeare’s most popular and well-loved comedies. Director Alex Clifton has gone for maximum impact with a supercharged production that literally leaps off the stage and at times feels as though it has eaten a few too many blue Smarties.

With a cast large enough to avoid the frequently used doubling, we’re able to benefit from separate actors for Theseus / Oberon, and Hyppolyta / Titania, which certainly helps the younger members of the audience to keep pace with the plot. The stage is filled with colour and light, and choreographer Rachel Catherall and fight director Philip d’Orleans ensure that every inch of space is used to the full.

The piece bursts into life with an explosion of percussion as the cast erupt onto the stage. It seems that Hermia got closer to marrying Demetrius than usual, as she arrives in her wedding dress, accompanied by Demetrius and Egeus in top hats and morning coats. In a twist to the tale her lover Lysander is played by Bianca Stephens, causing the occasional pronoun to be dropped. There’s a pointed hesitation as Egeus tells Theseus that “This… has bewitched the bosom of my child”, which adds more than usual weight to his disapproval of his daughter’s choice of partner. Whether this choice informs the text in any way is debateable, but it’s an interesting take on the already mixed up four-way relationship.

Thomas Richardson is outstanding as Puck, with a beautiful mixture of swagger and impish guile, and his “Puck Rock” t-shirt pretty much sums up the style of the production, which races along at a breathless pace. Some scenes, such as that in Act III Scene II where the drug mystified lovers spar both verbally and physically, become almost excessively frenetic.

In a tremendously imaginative piece of casting Adam Keast plays Bottom who, from his accent, seems to have crossed the border from Wales. His irresistible sense of slapstick that makes him such a hit in panto can’t be contained, and this is a Bottom played for maximum comedy value. This rubs off on the rest of the Mechanicals, who Natalie Grady’s Peter Quince tries vainly to keep in check. Their play presented at Theseus’ palace thus becomes one of the funniest versions of the scene that you’re likely to see.

From the outset this production is crying out to breathe fresh air, and everything about it feels as though it ought to be outdoors. The sonic backdrop provided by percussionist Josh Savage sometimes appears almost continuous and, in the confines of an enclosed theatre, it becomes rather wearing, as does the hyperactive stage movement. It’s hard not to feel that the show will come into its own when it moves to the open air theatre at Grosvenor Park later this month.

After a well-staged version of the company’s musical finale, Richardson’s Puck plays out a captivating epilogue, casting stars into the heavens before making his final farewell to the audience. Indoors it redeems what feels a somewhat uneven production. Outdoors, with the sun setting over the park, I suspect it will bring a genuinely magical ending to a piece that was born to play under the sky.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays indoors at Storyhouse to 12th July and then at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre until 27th August.

I’m reserving judgement on a star rating for this production, as it will almost certainly sound and feel much different when it moves outdoors.


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