A rewarding and memorable show in the open air

The Comedy Of Errors
The Comedy Of Errors

Open-air Shakespeare: an established and wonderful Eastbourne tradition. And this year’s EODS production is a splendid, spirited and slightly surprising Comedy of Errors.

Directors need a bit of nerve even to choose this madcap comedy of confusions. Take two pairs of identical twins, separated by time and geography and pitched together in a plot full of coincidences and misunderstandings, and sell it to an audience in Shakespearean language. Well, that is exactly what Heather Alexander achieves at the Italian Gardens, with a tireless cast and lashings of invention and imagination.

Heather’s success is twofold. There is excellent attention to detail, and not a trick is missed by her actors, in delivering the meaning as well as simply the lines. And crucially, there is a willingness to take risks – I almost said liberties – in a production brimming with hilarity and slapstick.

Wednesday’s opening night sailed close to the meteorological winds, but after a day’s rain the weather thankfully cleared just in time. It comes with our maritime territory, of course: I remember one recent EODS Twelfth Night under a spellbinding summer full moon, and a Tempest opening scene with exhausted sailors lurching up from a real storm-battered shore below. We are one with the weather. With audience on three sides, this production is beautifully set, colourfully dressed and lavishly lit: a thoroughly professional feel. The actors are confident in the round and audibility is excellent.

We are welcomed in Ephesus market by musicians, fruit-sellers, dodgy traders and a snake-charmer. The Sea Gypsies weave their belly-dances, and the spell is cast before even a word of Shakespeare is spoken. Then, with a creative use of mimes and masks, the story unfolds – improbable and quite complicated, but keep up for the first fifteen minutes (or mug up on the synopsis in the excellent programme) and you’ll be fine.

It’s really all about mistaken identities, and the actors deliver both lines and moves boldly and clearly. This is not Shakespeare at his most serious or profound, although there are nice little themes of servants undermining autocratic masters, shrewish wives beating hapless husbands, and happy-ending justice restored out of the anarchy.

A company of over thirty, from teens to seventy-ish, pulses with energy, and not only from the teens. Some wincingly painful slapstick has the audience in creases, and physical theatre gets a whole new slant, as characters find themselves stuck in water barrels, masters chase servants, or lovers wind sinuously around each other. Contains adult content? Not really: it’s all pure fun.

Again and again, we are whisked out of Shakespearean comfort and convention with a snatch of modern music, a 21st Century unscripted aside to the audience, or a startling freeze-frame fight sequence or Keystone Cops chase. Good directors and productions take risks, and this one takes plenty.

Several players stand out. Stephen Lowin, who plays both Dromio twins, is brilliant in every line, expression and gesture. Mike Barber has the whole range, from lugubrious to bewildered to exasperated, and David Rankin is his dignified, likeable mirror image twin. Mike’s command of the blank verse is equalled only by Melodie Gibson, who belies her youthfulness with an expert performance. Others could learn from her clarity and sharp, sassy characterisation.

Kim Ramakrishnan is the ferocious little wife, Stan Fillery is a nicely assertive Angelo, and Megan Good is a delicious flame-haired courtesan, whose suddenly captivating scene with her wrapt circle of the girls’ ensemble is a little snatch of inspired drama – one of many in a memorable show. A really rewarding evening.

Reviewed by Kevin Anderson