BWW Review: THE SHAKESPEARE REVUE, Richmond Theatre, 7 November 2016
A revue is a rare theatrical treat these days. In its heyday, the irresistible combination of light comedy, song and dance sketches was incredibly popular. Its golden age lasted from the early 1920s to the late 1950s, and for much of that time its greatest practitioner was Noël Coward, who wrote and appeared in a succession of revues on both sides of the Atlantic such as London Calling! (1923) and Sigh No More (1945).
Originally devised by Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee in 1994, The Shakespeare Revue is a comedic compilation of sketches and songs about the Bard, written by legends as diverse as Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett and Monty Python. The young quartet of players strut, sing and pose around the stage, jumping seamlessly from one skit to another.
Those with in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare will appreciate some of the more subtle references, but even those who believe they don't have extensive wisdom will be constantly surprised at what they actually do know and recognise. As very clever Bernard Levin "Prologue" points out, the playwright's works are so ingrained in our consciousness that we quote him every day without even realising it.
The first act features some gems, such as Monty Python's "The Man Who Speaks in Anagrams" and Victoria Wood's "Giving Notes". However, there are some points where the momentum is lost; songs such as "Carrying A Torch" aren't really funny or sharp enough to sit alongside such strong material, which impacts poorly on the energy of the show.
Act Two has more dynamism and flow, but there are indicators that some of the material has not aged that well. "The English Lesson", taken from Henry V, where Katharine and her companion are making fun of the English accent, has too many references to 'boobies' to feel comfortably funny today.
However, most of the act is genuinely witty. Maureen Lipman's "PC or Not PC" is cleverly adapted to refer to Glenda Jackson's latest incarnation as King Lear, and deftly makes fun of Donald Trump's bid for the US Presidency. Cole Porter's brilliant "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" is interspersed with hilarious GSCE English Literature exam answers, which makes it both current and even funnier.
The four performers are beautifully accompanied by McKee on piano, who adds extra strength to the singing and has excellent comic timing. All four actors have a warm rapport and the affability radiates from the stage.The standout performer is Alex Morgan, who is impressively natural, especially in "The Man Who Speaks in Anagrams".
Lizzie Bea has great energy, but her singing voice sometimes edges towards being shrill. Alex Scott Fairley plays his parts more as the classic thespian, which he pulls off very convincingly. Anna Stolli is witty and able. She gives a brave attempt at an operatic style in "The Heroine The Opera House Forgot", which doesn't quite come off, but is very funny nonetheless.
The direction and staging is very much in the classic revue mold; the set is simply four stools, a piano and a star backdrop. Props are minimal and Nicola Keen has recreated Jenny Arnold's original choreography very ably.
What the show puts across so well is that satirical writers have often used Shakespeare for comic purposes; the universal themes in his writing have created cultural references as relevant today as they ever were. The Shakespeare Revue has some weaker sections, but is a clever compilation of some brilliant writing and an evening of gentle, old-fashioned fun.
Photo Credit: Mark Douet