Bartholomew Fair

A fair appraisal from HANNAH MIRSKY.

ADC, 9th-12th September, 7.45pm

Dir: Harry Michell

Comedy does not age well. As an English student, I frequently find myself coming across a 400 year old joke, and having to reread it, puzzle over it and turn to the notes before finally getting it.  So to get as many laughs as this production does from a Renaissance comedy is already very impressive, and the cast achieves this with great dynamism and flair.

But sometimes, particularly in comedy, understatement is important. At times the loudness and exuberance of this production is exhilarating, but the noise from the stage occasionally disguises a distinct lack of laughs from the audience.

Director Harry Michell is evidently aiming to make this production as modern, dynamic an irreverent as possible. In this he succeeds: there is no declaiming or sober pretentiousness, and the magnificent set and costumes are generically historical, while avoiding fussy period detail. The huge cast of twenty-six rises to the challenge admirably, and some of the most electrifying moments are those when everyone one of them was onstage, bustling, singing, laughing, creating a startlingly vivid impression of the raucous titular fair.

In the director’s note in the programme, Michell compares playwright Ben Jonson’s humour to that of ‘contemporary sitcoms.’ This point of reference is clear. There is slapstick comedy, an assortment of in-jokes, and knowing winks at the audience – for example in a throwaway line about a ‘very handy plot device’. Special mention must go to Quentin Beroud’s Bartholomew Cokes, a hilariously befuddled poshboy in the vein of Blackadder’s Percy. But the important thing about a sitcom is it only lasts half an hour.

As the play draws on, the familiar tropes of sitcom comedy begin to get a little wearing. There’s only so many times you can laugh at one hapless character or another being chased around the stage with a saucepan.

The thing that this play has that modern television doesn’t is its seventeenth century language. Yet the production downplays this as much as possible. The actual words of the play are lost between ad libbed ‘yeah’s and ‘like’s, a strange variety of accents (I counted seven), and a string of incomprehensible screaming matches.

All of this also meant I was fairly hazy about plot details for most of the play. Most of the particularly striking elements of Bartholomew Fair – the energy, the big cast, the quick, ad-libbed speech – ultimately become points of style that are played for easy laughs, rather than elements of a rounded, structured production.

For a show that starts so surprisingly and interestingly, it was a great shame when it fizzled out rather than building to a conclusion. In the final scene, Justice Adam Overdo, who has learnt not to jump to moralising conclusions, is forced into inviting all those at the fair to his house for supper. Seeing the look of exasperation on his face at having to spend yet more time with this rowdy rabble, I felt I could sympathise.