BWW Review: A DREAM, Crucible, Sheffield, 13 July 2016
Sheffield People's Theatre's annual production is an audacious take on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in a very well realised version of Sheffield's Northern General Hospital - with cameos from several of the Bard's other well-known characters.
We begin at a midsummer music festival, where betrothed Theseus and Hippolyta are engaging in some pre-wedding fun, but a stage dive gone wrong results in them receiving injuries and winding up in the hospital. In the waiting room, a seemingly tipsy Hippolyta implores her fellow patients and the hospital staff to believe in the power of midsummer and love. From there, the hospital becomes a place of chaos and hilarity as some of that midsummer magic works its way through the different departments.
Plot wise, it sounds a little strange, and the combination of hospital setting and the Shakespearean storylines are maybe not the most natural fit on paper, but the humour and exuberance of the whole thing quickly win you over. This is a production that knows it is fantastical and outlandish, and relishes it - which, to be fair, is true to the source material.
Chris Bush, who also wrote two of the People's Theatre's previous productions (The Sheffield Mysteries and 20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield), is on writing duties and his script, whilst not always as logical or tightly plotted as it could be, is hilarious. The jokes vary from the groan-worthy to the subtle and surprising. The humour not only comes in the dialogue, however, but with a great amount of physical comedy.
Ben Blunt (Lysander), Jonathan Syer (Nick Ramsbottom - see what they did there?) and Genesia Kalsi (Rosalind), in particular, excel, ramping up their joyously written parts for all they're worth. Before seeing this, I never would have imagined that Lysander could be one of the funniest things in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but then I would never have imagined Titania and Oberon as warring consultants arguing over who mentors a promising medical student, nor envisaged mischievous Puck as a slightly rogue pharmacist - and here they all are!
The play adheres loosely to its origins - most of the story events and characters are present and correct, although only a smattering of original dialogue remains. However, the world of A Dream is much more expansive to take into account the 100-strong cast, and so the patients, staff and relatives found in the hospital setting also include a number of very familiar characters: some of my favourite interpretations included Antony and Cleopatra as elderly sweethearts and long-married Beatrice and Benedick still affectionately bickering and trying to get the upper hand.
The cast comprises local residents from teens to elders, of mixed gender, disability, ethnicity and career background (the programme lists everyone's day jobs, including farm labourers, marketing consultants, teachers, psychotherapists and factory workers). All of them give energetic and spirited performances - and everyone is required to sing and dance as well as act, and to be deft at set changing. There is a really strong sense of teamwork throughout, to the credit of director Emily Hutchinson, the production team and the cast themselves.
Occasionally the actors forget to wait for laughter to die down before delivering lines, so some of their words get lost, and in one or two places it looked like an extra rehearsal or two might have benefitted the slightly more nervous performers, but these are small quibbles, especially since this is an amateur company, and the size of cast must have made rehearsals a challenge! The play itself has a good heart and a desire to please the crowd. It does become a little mawkish and overly sentimental in places, but there's generally enough bite and humour in it to avoid tipping too far in that direction.
Sheffield People's Theatre was one of the big initiatives of outgoing artistic director Daniel Evans and it remains to be seen how new AD Robert Hastie will shape Sheffield Theatres' community initiatives going forward, but I hope we will still see these huge SPT productions in some shape or form. Whilst such big endeavours may lack the subtlety and nuance of some of the more traditional Crucible fare, their daring and sense of spectacle can't be beaten, and each of their productions has been a great way of celebrating the relationship between the theatres and the city they are part of.
A Dream is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, until July 16
Photo by Mark Douet shows Ben Blunt as Lysander