I have to confess I was really excited for this show. I’d chanced upon it whilst browsing the Arts website and was immediately drawn to the combination of jazz & Shakespeare. The story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream lends itself perfectly to the voodoo mystique surrounding the Deep South, bringing out the dark edge that is so often overlooked.
A performance in such an intimate space, and in traverse, really enhances the atmosphere; on entering you are greeted by the rumbling of thunder & dimmed lights, immediately transporting you into another world. There is a minimal set: the main piece is a bed, decorated with fairy lights & foliage. This is obviously in part due to space constraints, but it also allows the acting to do the talking.
Another wonderful element of this production is the inclusion of jazz. It is all played live by the cast (as well as the producer & music co-ordinator, Joe Evans, accompanying on piano) – a selection of carefully chosen numbers by Dr. John, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Randy Newman & Joe Liggins. I thought there might’ve been a few more songs than there actually were, but the balance was pretty spot on; there’s always the possibility of labouring a theme and turning it into a gimmick. As is often the case, less is more! Real highlights for me are ‘Marie Laveau‘, setting the scene at the beginning, ‘Such A Night‘ and ‘Going Back To New Orleans‘ (a fitting ending, with a chance to clap along). The musical arrangement has been very well done, and fits in with the natural flow of the production; it doesn’t feel forced in any way.
There is not a weak link in this multi-talented cast.
Comic brilliance is provided by the trio of Lowri Ames, Sarah Ratheram & Matt Jopling, in the ‘play within a play’ in particular – there is an ingenious use of a clarinet that really made me giggle! Add into that group Matthew Woodyatt as a very pompous Nick Bottom and you have the perfect set.
David Monteith & Silvana Maimone, as Oberon & Titania respectively, exude charisma. You really believe they are the king & queen of the fairies, and the voodoo stylings definitely suit them. Tristan Pegg is wonderfully innocent as the changeling boy they are fighting over.
The young lovers are all very well portrayed, with a special mention to Samantha Louise Clark as Hermia. You truly believe her pain at being rejected by Lysander (Jonathan Ajayi) following his dose of ‘love-in-idleness’ – her desperation & confusion is palpable. Ruari Cannon really brings out Demetrius’ unlikeable characteristics, making you wonder what Helena (a brilliant EJ Martin) sees in him, until he redeems himself at the end.
Lawrence O’Connor is impressive playing the different roles of Theseus & Quince – also forming part of the band, on guitar.
But for me there is one true standout performance: Sid Phoenix as Puck. He is truly sensational! Dressed in typical New Orleans voodoo style costume, complete with black & white makeup and red contact lenses, he has a magnetic presence. He manages to make Puck both mischievous & dark, and has great chemistry with Monteith; they are a marvellous double act. Phoenix is also unafraid of interacting with audience members in the front row – or manouevring himself along the bar area, popping up when you least expect it.
So I think it’s safe to say I enjoyed the show! I’m always appreciative of a bit of Shakespeare and the opportunity to expand my ever-growing love of jazz. It is a real hidden gem.
This Ruby In The Dust production is on at Upstairs at the Arts until 29 August (Tuesdays-Sundays) – I’m really hoping to go again if I can, especially as the performance I was at was a preview. Maybe I’ll see you there?