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BWW Review: BARTHOLOMEW FAIR, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

BWW Review: BARTHOLOMEW FAIR, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

BWW Review: BARTHOLOMEW FAIR, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse "Drink to the cause, and pure vapours." We've reached the end of August, which for us means the summer bank holiday and Notting Hill Carnival - but go back a few centuries and the only thing on Londoners' minds would be Bartholomew Fair. An annual event that sprung up in Smithfield around St Bartholomew's Day, it saw all manner of people from every part of society come together in one place for roast hog, a variety of stalls, and all the fun of the fair.

It's this melting pot upon which Ben Jonson focused when writing his city play of the same name, and that Blanche McIntyre has brought to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a limited run this summer.

Events conspire to bring people to this year's Bartholomew Fair; Littlewit has a play on and his heavily pregnant wife wants some diversion, the cut-purse Ezekiel is on the hunt for prey, and the wealthy idiot Cokes is tantalised by all the goods on offer. On top of this, Winwife and Quarlous are competing for the attention of rich widow Dame Purecraft (Littlewit's mother-in-law), though their heads are turned by Cokes' neglected fiancée Grace.

All the while, Justice Overdo goes about the fair in disguise - he's keen to see the actions of the people with his own eyes, rather than rely on the testimony of others, but gets a bit more than he bargained for...

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been given a complete makeover for this production, and I applaud Ti Green for experimenting with the space and trying something new; the pit has become a bit more open, leaving a single row of seats around the edge - and, as the programme notes tell us that Jonson's city plays hold a mirror up to 17th century London, the playhouse interior now gleams with its own mirrors, capturing actor and audience alike.

The play has been given a 21st century overhaul for this production, and it's remarkable how recognisable certain characters and personalities are. The Puritan proclaiming the godlessness of the fair has been turned into a Deep South preacher, and the authority figure Overdo regularly quotes Latin and is easily made to look a fool; the metadrama that opens the play touches on people searching for something to be offended by - this is quite a familiar state of affairs these days, particularly anything being taken out of context.

There is quite a lot to untangle, with several plots competing for attention and tangling together - not to mention a puppet play-within-a-play - but thanks to McIntyre's dynamic direction, and some Herculean efforts from the company, it's a rollicking production that goes all-out to entertain.

With so many characters and a fairly small cast, you're never quite sure who's going to emerge from the tiring house next. Standout performances come from Zach Wyatt as the simpleton Bartholomew Cokes (at one point having a very engaging conversation with the box of puppets before the play), Forbes Masson as his irascible servant Humphrey 'Numps' Wasp, and Joshua Lacey as the inventive pickpocket Ezekiel Edgworth. Anne Odeke also impresses in her various roles, as does Richard Katz - particularly when it comes to the puppet show.

This season at Shakespeare's Globe has felt a bit more daring than last summer in terms of its presentation, and it's a thrill to see this spill over into the indoor space as well. It's also a pleasure to see more of Ben Jonson; I feel he's a somewhat underappreciated figure in theatrical history, but his works are sharp and funny - and just as important in the arts as Shakespeare himself. Bartholomew Fair is a great example of this, and this production is a riotous night out that's a welcome distraction from the real world.

Bartholomew Fair is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 12 October

Picture credit: Marc Brenner

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