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BWW Review: THE TEMPEST, Jermyn Street Theatre

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The theatre's 2020 production is back, and Artistic Director Tom Littler seems to have unlocked an arcane secret that makes the piece feel gigantic in the 70-seat theatre

BWW Review: THE TEMPEST, Jermyn Street Theatre

BWW Review: THE TEMPEST, Jermyn Street Theatre

Oh, how life changes in 20 months. Not quite two years, not quite one and a half. In March 2020, artistic director of Jermyn Street Theatre Tom Littler teamed up with Michael Pennington to deliver Shakespeare's swansong. That production ran for six performances before closing down due to the "unprecedented times" we're still dealing with.

It's incredible how a play that's 400 years old and a show that's nearly two can feel so relevant and wondrous. Prospero, a sorcerer and the rightful Duke of Milan, lives on a remote island with his daughter Miranda and his two servants, Ariel and Caliban. With the magician stranded there, his dukedom was usurped by his brother. The Tempest is a tale of family, isolation, betrayal, and revenge, all tied together with the most exquisite of Shakespeare's magic. It's one of Shakespeare's big ones, but Littler seems to have unlocked some arcane secret that makes the piece feel gigantic in his 70-seat theatre.

Now, many months and much struggle (financial and personal) after it was first staged, the show's back. And what a glorious return to the stage it is! There's a feeling of unspoken and inexplicable awe in the air of the tiny studio in the middle of the West End. While the production remains mostly the same at heart, either our newfound hindsight or the recent general insecurity around Covid regulations (hopefully this time they'll run for more than six nights!) makes it feel unique. More poignant, more sophisticated, more human than it did back then. Less taken for granted, perhaps.

Pennington's Prospero is different himself. Ancient but ageless, his performance is now rooted in his nature as a man of letters and an artist. Nose in a book (of spells, of prophecies, of poetry, a sketchbook, we shan't know) and an introspective observer more than anything, he is an opaque presence with a strong magical hold on the island and its shipwrecked wanderers.

He leans into a reserved, quiet, and collected delivery before growing thunderous as he beckons and orders his slaves around. He is as doting a father as he is a hard-hearted master. Rachel Pickup joins the company as Miranda, marking the only cast change. A lonely child in her youth, she makes no secret of her curiosity and excitement about the new arrivals on the island. Instantly taken with Tam Williams's Ferdinand, the first boy she's ever met and Prince of Naples, she almost makes a case study of him.

The rest of the actors renew their superb performances, with Whitney Kehinde stealing the scene. Her Ariel is a caged songbird, restless and desperate to reconquer her freedom. Her garments are particularly striking. A lacey skirt recalls sea foam, so her top becomes seaweed in our eyes. Designers Neil Irish and Anett Black toy with the imagery, creating a delicate, meticulously detailed set and equally gorgeous costumes. Wooded tones dominate the space and copper flooring reflects William Reynolds's lighting as the shimmering sea.

We can't go any further up that five stars, which they already received from us in 2020, but this production reaches beyond its star rating. It's beautiful, and a testament to a great Shakespearean actor who's reprising an immense role giving it entirely new significance.

The Tempest runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until 22 December.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson


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