The Comedy of Errors

AMI JONES thinks this film-noir style Shakespeare is funny, punchy, but occasionally unsettling.

Cambridge Arts Theatre charlotte hambin comedy of errors Emma Powell jack gamble James Parris Joey Batey michael fentiman robert willoughby

Cambridge Arts Theatre, Wed 6 – Sat 9 Feb, 7.45pm/2.30pm, £15/£20/£25/£12.50

Director: Michael Fentiman

Like any good arts student, I do love me a bit of film noir. Mmmm yes. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, ‘Here’s lookin’ at you, kid’ – what’s not to love? So even though 1950s- mafia-gangster-Shakespeare is a bit of a cliché, it was hard not to get a little bit excited at the sharp trilbies, the sexy brogues, the stark grey backdrop offset by dramatic light-and- shadow play a la Casablanca (rah rah, I watch artsy films). The whole production looked amazing – shafts of light, lampshades and chandeliers flying everywhere, and very extensive and effective use of a scrim throughout, all pulled off with the technical competence and professionalism you’d expect of the Marlowe show.

The whole 50s mafia vibe was largely pulled off, I think, by this light-and-shadow film noir edge, as it played up the way in which light and dark do offset each other dramatically so often in Shakespearean comedy. Here, all that identity confusion and chaos, which is typically conveyed as charming, bumbling to-do, is pushed to the limits of its implications. We are forced to confront the fact that even though it is funny when the double-twins get all jumbled up and land in disastrous situations, the reality is that loving wives get cheated on, servants are beaten, and perfectly sane human beings are straitjacketed and locked up brutally in asylums.

The cast is filled with all the sharply-directed energy needed to pull off a production like this, and the exchanges between the two twin-pairs of servant-masters (Joey Batey, Jack Gamble, James Parris and Rob Willoughby) are bouncy and slickly, slickly rehearsed. Parris in particular delivers with devastating funniness his lament about his “wife’s” morbid unattractiveness (history’s first extensive ‘Yo Mama’ speech). Charlotte Hamblin and Emma Powell (Adriana and Luciana respectively) put in an excellent show as the only two females of note in the play, and both are fully capable of delivering pathos and hilarity in equal measure. You go, girls. Special mention is deserved, too, by Freddie Crosley, who was delightful in a range of small, colourful cameos throughout.

A few things jarred, however; the play seemed to get a little too caught up in its own conceit at times. Mainly little things, like the final lines of a soliloquy being delivered into a phone instead of out to the audience for no apparent reason. People got smacked in the balls rather unconvincingly and rather too many times. And the little musical riff that was repeated throughout was about as close a heavy-handed rip-off as you could manage of the Godfather theme without actually breaking copyright law. But there were more glaring moments as well. As far as I could tell, Rosa Robson’s sole part in this play was as some sort of omnipresent hooker, constantly cropping up in a racy negligee. Is she just a prozzer? Oh no, wait – she’s also Gangster-Duke of Ephesus’ girlfriend! But then why is she whoring herself out to general members of the public? Why is Gangster-Duke hitting her for no reason in the middle of a scene change? And why does she suddenly appear, flash a bit of leg, sing a bit of song, then just leave, right in the middle of the action?

I also understand that one of the factors in showing up the dark side of this comedy is to force us to confront the grimy sex and infidelity which normally happen offstage, but here it just seemed gratuitous. I didn’t really need to watch Joey Batey shag Charlotte Hamblin from behind in very awkward slow motion for that long, particularly since his very sudden falling-in-love with her sister a few scenes later jars when I still have that image burned into my retinas. Joey Akubeze is also very funny as the quack-doctor Pinch, but the decision to portray him as a stereotyped voodoo-witch-doctor was slightly uncomfortable, not to mention anachronistic. Aviators and trilbies do not belong in the same era-aesthetic. (And why was the witch-doctor wearing aviators anyway?)

So maybe not quite all the sexy-slickness of Bogart in a trench coat. But still pretty darn hot: this production is funny, punchy, and delivers genuine feeling in its moments of pathos. I definitely wouldn’t kick it out of bed.