The scene is set with The Princess of France (Kirsty Woodward) sitting atop a toy chest playing with a music box. The rest of the ensemble emerge from the chest, as though toys coming to life after the toyshop closes. This element of childish play is scattered into the production’s design, with hobby horses and wooden swords and costumes straight out of a book of nursery rhymes. It seems appropriate to infantilise the aesthetics as, not only is this one of The Bard’s earliest comedies, it is also a story about young people and the things young people get up to. The King of Navarre (Paul Stocker) and his best mates Dumaine (Tom Kanji) and Berowne (Dharmesh Patel) decide they are going to take an oath to swear off women for three years whilst they concentrate on their studies. Naturally, three women arrive on the doorstep almost immediately and the boy’s oaths are put to the test. The storyline is simple enough, but the language is incredibly dense. It is no wonder the play is rarely performed, there are reams of jokes where the audience need to know Latin to understand. Even someone with an ear well attuned to Shakespeare will struggle to follow the blank verse delivered in this two and half hour show.
In order to compensate for this, Bagnell really plays up the physical comedy. There is also a lot of reliance on funny voices and hammy accents to pull laughs from the crowd. Sometimes It works, especially when the actor’s ad-lib with the audience but often it feels verging on desperate. All the actors gave fine performances but the level of multi-role happening was exhausting. There were times when characters were obviously missing from scenes because their actors were busy being someone else. Jos Vantyler gave a memorable performance as Don Armado, a Spanish version of Captain Jack Sparrow but again had to split his energy into playing his own pageboy. An interesting directorial choice but one that felt a little unnecessary. Overall the production was hit and miss but at the final bow, a smile came across my face to see a Shakespeare play with a curtain call dominated by female performers.