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Stuart King

Review: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS at the Barbican

When two sets of identical masters and servants all find themselves in Ephesus (having been mixed-up and separated years earlier as the result of a nautical disaster) miscommunications and mistaken identities unsurprisingly result. The farcical comedy and slapstick choreography which ensues lays at the heart of Phillip Breen's direction of Shakespeare's best loved early comedy for the RSC, now playing at the Barbican.

The Comedy of Errors The Comedy of Errors Barbican, London, November 2021. Photo by Pete Le May.

There are literally non-stop jokes from the moment Antony Bunsee (as Egeon the twins' father) finishes his historical tale of woe, which sets-up the scenes to come. Some geographically inspired wisecracks barely make their way across the footlights due to age and inappropriateness, which elicits a comedy gold moment from Dromio of Syracuse (Jonathan Broadbent) when he begs the audience “Help me out here, these jokes are 400 years old!”. The mix-ups and confusions keep coming almost to the point of audience exhaustion, but thankfully everyone acquits themselves incredibly well on stage, even if matters repeatedly veer into corn field territory.

Of the two Antipholus', it is the brother who has made his home in Ephesus (Rowan Polonski) who takes matters to extreme in the emotional breakdown scene which culminates in him explaining the sequence of wrongs he has endured. He literally has the audience bursting into involuntarily applause at the end of his grovelling meltdown at the knees of his Duke. His long lost sibling Atipholus of Syracuse (Guy Lewis) plays an altogether more confused and therefore reserved twin, but grabs the zeitgeist with constant applications of hand sanitiser and at one moment whilst being erotically accosted, manages to squirt a jet of the stuff half-way across the stage in his state of nervous arousal. It ain't subtle, but it's certainly hilarious. Naomi Sheldon sporting a pregnancy bump and large 80's blond wig just about manages to retain her poise as AofE's wife despite considerable provocation throughout, and makes the most of the major female part in this play about men behaving badly.

Aside from a few gripes in relation to didactic vocal delivery (the lines are so well-written they shouldn't need over emphasis to sell the jokes or meanings — so trust the author and allow your audience to make sense of his words), the evening was a rousing success. Max Jones deserves a nod for his pseudo-Middle Eastern hotel/airport lounge setting, which helps the difficult task of modernisation by minimising set clutter and as a bonus allows the many scenes with large cast numbers to flood and evacuate the stage quickly.

The Comedy of Errors Tickets