A Double First for us last night, which is something neither of us can say of our academic careers. Not only was it our first encounter with local drama company White Cobra Productions, it was also our first visit to the charming little Playhouse theatre in Northampton. Tucked away in a quiet corner of The Mounts (or should that be the recently rebranded Boot and Shoe Quarter), this little gem is full of character and atmosphere. Just like nearly every other building in Northampton that has something of a history, it was originally built as a shoe factory in the late 19th century. Since then it’s undergone a number of changes including – allegedly – at one time being a coffin warehouse. Frankly, it’s not the kind of place I’d like to be locked in alone at night.
White Cobra Productions have been going for three years now and The Shakespeare Revue is (I believe) their fourth production. The show is a vivacious assembly of over thirty sketches and songs, originally put together by the RSC for the annual celebrations to mark Shakespeare’s birthday in 1993. Just think, he would have been 429 years old. Not many people get to mark that particular birthday, but being the good egg he was, we just love him, don’t we, us theatregoers, can’t get enough of him. “What a wonderful old chap Shakespeare was, bald but sexy” as Peter Cook once intoned. The sketches and songs themselves date as far back as 1905, and flowed from such gifted pens as those that belonged to Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Victoria Wood, J B Priestley, and many many others.
As you might expect from such a varied collection of writers, some sketches and songs hit the funnybone with a bit more pinpoint accuracy than others, but even if a few of them don’t quite do it for you, another will be along in a minute. I had a number of favourites: there’s a quirky version of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic sung by the Capulets; another song, In Shakespeare’s Day, refers to the challenges in staging some of these shows with modern day performers wondering how on earth they managed it in the 1500s. There’s a pomposity-pricking sketch about the ways you might interpret the word “Time”; and a wonderful sequence when a noble wanderer returns to ask “And How is Hamlet” only to find the play’s entire cast have snuffed it.
There were two sketches that I appreciated the most. Richard Jordan took the Julie Walters’ role in Victoria Wood’s sketch Giving Notes, where he is the director taking his cast to task for not giving us their funniest of Hamlets. I remember that sketch so clearly, having re-watched the series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV dozens of times in the 1980s. A masterstroke to have it performed by a man – Mr Jordan treading a fine line between luvvie and tyrant – which gave it its own unique identity. The other really inventive sketch was the superbly written Othello in Earnest, where Othello is grilled by Lady Brabantio as to his suitability for marrying Desdemona – just as Wilde’s Lady Bracknell grills Jack over her dear Gwendolen. This gives rise to some fabulous cross-over puns, for example “to lose both sounds like hairlessness” and “the lion is immaterial”. Kate Billingham was a marvellously haughty Lady B and Fraser Haines a quite modest and genteel Moor of Venice – as superbly unlike your average Othello as is possible to imagine.
Just as each sketch or song has its own charm, each of the six performers brings their own style and character to the show too. They all worked together very well as an ensemble – not getting in each other’s way on such a small stage is no mean feat, particularly with the incorporation of choreography! The cast have a nice sense of the ridiculous, perhaps nowhere seen better than in The English Lesson where Kate Billingham and Kimberley Vaughan take on the roles of Henry V’s intended bride Katharine and her partner in Franglais, Alice. Like all the best pantos, we had a song sheet (which was, literally, a sheet) and a competition to see which section of the auditorium could sing the loudest – an interesting concept in a theatre that seats 84 max. No finer sound than a happy audience knowingly (or unknowingly) singing along to a list of double entendres.
But these are just a few highlights of a very entertaining and upbeat show performed by a talented and likeable cast. It’s only on for a brief run at the Playhouse, but there is an additional performance scheduled for July 4th in Pitsford. Catch it if you can!