Review – The Comedy of Errors – Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester

Review by Nigel Smith

“Wherefore art thou Dromio?” It could have been a line, but Shakespeare probably decided to save it for another project.

He did certainly say that brevity is the soul of wit, and The Comedy of Errors is a firm favourite because it has both of these qualities. It’s very, very funny – perfect fare for a summer afternoon accompanied by a picnic, but it’s also the shortest of Shakespeare’s comedies. Together these things make it ideal material for the triumphant return of Chester’s Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, following months of uncertainty.

This being the first piece of live performance of any kind that I have seen in almost 4 months, there is more to talk about here than the show itself, but first (and here again Shakespeare has the words) the play’s the thing.

Rehearsed, staged and opened in the space of just 2 weeks, the first thing that stands out is the incredible slickness of the performance. This is fast-paced comedy, and timing is essential in making both the visual and textual gags work, so to see it achieved here with such skill – especially when half the rehearsals took place remotely via video – is hugely impressive.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it revolves around two pairs of identical twins, one pair bound to the other as servants at birth and then separated as babes in arms and relocated in different countries. One Antipholus and his servant Dromio, who were brought up in Syracuse with Antipholus’s father Egeon, decide to set forth and find their lost twins and namesakes, eventually tracking them down where they live in Ephesus, but before they can be reunited there’s a day of mistaken identities and misunderstandings to be unravelled. The merchant Egeon follows his son but gets into deep water because of laws forbidding merchants from Syracuse entering Ephesus.

It is sharp-tongued slapstick requiring rapid entrances and exits that would be at home in a Whitehall Farce, but I refuse to speak here of any farce in Whitehall. Fortunately the director Alex Clifton didn’t see the need to make a political statement either, choosing to keep this an afternoon of joyous entertainment. And joyous it was.

In a genius stroke of casting, the two pairs of twins are played by – well – two pairs of twins. As one Antipholus or Dromio exits stage right and another enters stage left, you really do think you’re seeing double, and there is added comedy to be had in hearing the reaction from those of the audience who didn’t read the cast list, as it slowly dawns on them what’s afoot. Danielle and Nichole Bird and Mari and Lowri Izzard play the separated siblings, identical in form and dress, and distinguishable only by their accents. Jessica Dives not only plays at least four roles, but also provides musical direction for the show. She delivers instrumental and vocal accompaniment along with Simeon Truby, Who also takes various parts including Egeon. Danielle Henry has enormous fun as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, while Anton Cross is hysterical as Adriana’s incredulous sister Luciana, when he’s not playing someone else.

Confused? You won’t be – because Alex Clifton is a master storyteller and always manages to make even the most convoluted of Shakespearian plots completely lucid.

Staged in just 2 weeks, Jessica Curtis’s design is kept as simple as possible, with an arrangement of wooden barrels. This allows space for the action to be performed with a safe 3 metres between the actors in all but a few key moments of close proximity.

So what is it like to be back in the theatre after 2020 became a cultural desert? I have already used the word – joyous. It pretty much covers it really. On arrival there is naturally a sense of excitement, but with so many familiar faces welcoming regular attendees it quickly feels as though we were never away. After a more than usually enthusiastic round of applause as the actors take to the stage, the performance is so energetic that we really do forget the problems of the world outside for a while. It’s only when the end comes and we begin to applaud that the realisation dawns that it’s been so long since we were able to engage in this simple but wonderfully communal act.

This is a huge part of what theatre is really about. It’s not the multi-million pound blockbuster shows that are the real beating heart of the industry – it’s the people whose purpose is making work with and for their local communities. Storyhouse are a fine example of a producer that does just that, and along with so many other local theatres and fringe companies they need our support now to ensure their survival.

The smiles on the faces of the audience are priceless, certainly, but worth their weight in gold are those on the faces of the performers, many of whom only a few short weeks ago had no idea where their next work was coming from.

There are so many creative people in the theatre industry who have the vision, flexibility and determination to find ways of adapting to new challenges. You will find them in local companies and working as independents everywhere. So don’t wait until the big hitters come back with their massive productions and huge touring shows – please support the people who have always been in the places where those shows were born and grew up.

The Comedy of Errors runs at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre until 30th August. For information and tickets, visit www.grosvenorparkopenairtheatre.co.uk

Star rating: Four Stars