Much of what you make of this slick production of Shakespeare’s nutty comedy will depend on your attitude towards the Marmite scent of David Walliams in full, grotesque Little Britain mode.
If you’re a fan of Walliams’s camp gurning, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Grandage’s latest show. As Bottom, an Athenian labourer with high am-dram ambitions, Walliams’s early scenes are spun through with an outlandish egomania combined with a suggestion that he and actor-writer Peter Quince are an item. Holding much of the audience in the palm of his hand, Bottom’s later, ludicriously drawn-out death scene certainly gets a lot of laughs.
But unfortunately something in Walliams’s near-Frankie Howerd pastiche lacks the necessary warmth to really win us over. And his huge stage presence (he really is very tall) rather overshadows the rest of his gang.
The “Carry On Mechanicals” nod is far from the only influence on this Midsummer. As Hippolyta, a besuited Sheridan Smith looks like she’d just stepped off the Mad Men set; later as the sexy wood-dwelling Queen of the Fairies, all pinky blonde dreadlocks, thighs and cleavage, she drags on spliffs and seemingly rules over a Peter-Pan Puck and a cast of Lost Boys embarking on a raggedy production of Hair. Meanwhile, the four runaway lovers remind us of a Shakespearean Brad and Janet, particularly as, once wood-bound, they each find themselves somewhat inexplicably stripped down to their tighty whities.
This latter strand of Shakespeare’s multi-layered romantic comedy proves a highlight. The lovers’ messy, tear-stained fighting is packed with humour; as Hermia and Helena, Katherine Kingsley and Susannah Fielding are touching in their confusion, providing genuinely warm moments where Walliams’s crew and Puck and his fairies do not.
Despite being a whole lot of fun, somehow this Midsummer lacks the necessary magic to make it a real success. We missed the deep, powerful sense of wonder the falling in (and out of) love this play should offer.
A Midsummer Night's Dream runs at the Noel Coward Theatre, 85 St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4AU until 16 November. Tickets cost £10, £27.50 or £57.50. Visit michaelgrandagecompany.com to find out more. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket.