Not often do producing houses on the London fringe sit down and say, “Let’s do a rep season: let’s do Shakespeare and… Thomas Middleton”, but that’s exactly what co-artistic directors, Henry Filloux-Bennett and Nicholas Thompson have done at the Old Red Lion Theatre and they should be celebrated for it. At a time when new-writing is being encouraged and some say funding for productions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ plays should be lessened, the creative brains behind this Angel, Islington pub theatre call the cynics’ bluff and offer two plays that you should see.
The second half of the rep season brings us Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, directed by Nicholas Thompson. Mark Field brings light humour to Vindice’s famous opening speech, set inside a photography darkroom exhibiting prints of his prospective victims. Field’s performance as the red-eyed Vindice and his alter-ego Piato is a lot more playful than his Henry V portrayal; he plays around with the idea that Piato’s attire looks like he’s just walked out of an Elvis joke-shop. The costumes are designed by Mike Lees who, as with Henry V, also designed the versatile set. He gives every actor a moment of camp glory; none more so than that the gifted Nicholas Kime who gives those cross-dressing players on the South Bank a run for their money with his innocent yet ever seductive Castiza who is introduced in an unsubtle leotard.
Kime’s energy as the bastard son, Spurio, gets you giggling for 5 minutes and has the whole audience beaming. Jack Morris revels again this time as the Duke’s son, Lussurioso. A cross between Del Boy and Rodney, Morris brings great charisma and enthusiasm which, combined with his subtle TV and film expressions, makes for a wonderfully refined performance. Henry Regan executes some of the speediest quick-changes since those in the Madness musical, Our House, changing between Vindice’s brother, Hippolito – who is played as a greasy chav, dressed in an Adidas tracksuit jacket – and the Gok Wan-like Ambitioso. You’re left wanting to see what Regan does next. Steve Fortune and Christine Oram show the kids they can still have fun, with a sex scene between Duke and Duchess that could have featured in the Kevin & Perry Go Large sequel.
With a wordy script, Act One seems a bit slow at times but Leo Steele’s vibrant lighting design keeps you alert. Act Two is one of the most exciting concluding acts of Jacobean theatre I have seen for some time: the action and production come together wonderfully and Thompson’s direction captures the essence of a family well.
In only a week you can see how this ensemble has progressed. It makes you wonder what ever happened to true rep and why our industry ever got rid of it. The greats such as McKellen, Dench, Stewart and Jarvis all came through the rep system specialising in Shakespeare and it makes you wonder if, unless true rep finds its way firmly back into our industry, the idea of the “greats” will become a myth and we’ll only ever have “good actors”.
The Revengers Tragedy is playing at the Old Red Lion until the 29th September. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.