‘We can go anywhere,’ the robed pardoner tells us with gleaming eyes, ‘play with reality, pluck worlds from this air’. And that is exactly what Lewis Gibson’s adaption of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale does.
A pardoner, we learn, was a man who sold so-called ‘pardons’ which could excuse your sins and guarantee you an entrance to the pearly gates when the time came. Gary Lagden’s Pardoner keeps the medieval dress, but has a modern tongue as Chaucer’s Tale is smoothly updated with jokes about Twitter and teachers. I was, at first, doubtful about the mix between setting and language, and thought perhaps modern dress would have been a bolder choice, but the whole thing works.
I am often dubious about one-man shows, but Gary Lagden is wonderful as the Pardoner and sole actor. With near perfect comic timing, he charms us in the prologue and later flits effortlessly between characters to create the tale. Lagden has two musical accompanists (Christopher Preece and Hannah Marshall), who use everything, from a cello to bottles to what looked like a melon, to create music and a plethora of sound effects. We see Lagden fight giants, walk across frozen lakes, and tear his still-beating heart from his chest, all to show us how the Pardoner cons his customers with stories and wiles.
As well as all his tricks, the Pardoner takes us through the seven deadly sins and, much to the delight of many of the school children present, even gives out some pardons. When one audience member says she would spend a million pounds on theatre tickets, she’s given a pardon for pride – ‘thinking you’re better than everyone else’.
All in all it’s a wonderfully imaginative and resourceful show. The set and lighting (Rebecca Hurst and Ben Pacey) are faultless and the many tricky stage manoeuvres come off looking effortlessly polished. This whole production shows us the capabilities of theatre, and lets us in on the tricks. It is a clever and funny rocket through Chaucer’s Tale. I’d love to see even more tackled; The Wife of Bath’s Tale would be good, although perhaps for an adult audience this time.
The Pardoner’s Tale is playing at Unicorn Theatre until 31 January. For more information and tickets, see the Unicorn Theatre website.