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BWW Review: COMUS, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 1 November 2016

'Wonder Noir', Emma Rice's first winter season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, opens with a production of John Milton's masque Comus. A dark reflection of the Wonder Season opener (A Midsummer Night's Dream), it's a tale that truly befits the season's moniker.

The masque was originally commissioned by the Earl of Bridgewater to commemorate his appointment as Lord President of Wales; the production uses this historical fact in order to transcend the masque form and turn it into a more recognisable play format. Opening as the players - including the Earl's three children (Alice, William and Thomas) - are in the midst of their final rehearsal, it's soon time for the performance to begin. The fantasy world of the masque takes over, and Alice becomes 'The Lady'.

We are then introduced to the eponymous Comus, an enchanter, and his rout of followers - he tricks The Lady into accompanying him, suggesting he will lead her back to her brothers. Instead, he traps her in a magical chair and repeatedly tempts her; she resists, showing her pure and chaste nature. Her brothers eventually find her, but have to call upon the river nymph Sabrina to free her. On doing so, everything reverts back to the original masque at Ludlow, where the children are asked to provide an epilogue, by way of what they learnt from the masque - Alice's bold response comes as something of a shock to her father...

Given that this masque is not the most well known of Milton's works, it's a clever idea to contextualise the piece by having the cast begin as historical figures who then act in a highly dramatised version of the original masque. Lucy Bailey's production feels fresh and new, but retains an air of authenticity. It plays up its metatheatricality to such a point that the audience almost becomes part of the show itself, adding to the intimate feel of the playhouse's surroundings.

William Dudley's design is quite subtle, bringing the forest into the playhouse by way of some foliage and a beautiful curtain backdrop. There are exquisite costumes on display; a particular favourite of mine is Sabrina's dazzling technicolour dress.

Philip Cumbus provides plenty of comedic moments as composer Henry Lawes (who performs in the masque as the Attendant Spirit, watching over the children), as do the onstage sibling double act of Theo Cowan and Rob Callender. Danny Lee Wynter puts in a charismatic performance in the title role, often becoming one with his monstrous contingent.

Emma Curtis stars as both The Lady and Alice, providing a strong female figurehead in a story that could easily be taken over by the fantastical Comus. The Lady is earnest in her beliefs and resolve to remain chaste - something that might ordinarily feel a little old-fashioned, but Curtis manages to ensure its relevance. As Alice, she comes forward with a strong feminist message at the end, showing herself a force to be reckoned with.

Comus is a debauched and dangerous cross between Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Rice's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which also provides a bold statement of female empowerment. A natural progression from the Globe's daring Imogen that will have you thinking and laughing in equal measure.

Box office: 020 7401 9919,

Picture credit: Sheila Burnett

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From This Author Debbie Gilpin