The beauty of pantomime lies in its ability to not take itself seriously, which makes pairing the format with Shakespeare seem like a fairly odd (and potentially disastrous) choice. Thankfully, Bembridge Little Theatre Club’s production of ‘A Bard in the Hand’ avoids any hint of pretension and fully embraces the silliness that is a Christmas panto staged in August, featuring William Shakespeare as principal boy.
As both writer and director, Maureen Sullivan’s passion for the bard truly shines, as she masterfully applies a Shakespearian twist to familiar pantomime tropes throughout. The script weaves in enough hilariously timed quotes, puns, references and satire to make it a must-see for any theatre buff, without ever resorting to material that would go over anyone’s head. The show takes some bizarre turns, from a familiar tale of two star-crossed lovers to an impromptu (and awesome) performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, but it is all handled with a level of wit and nuance that kept the audience howling with laughter.
The eponymous bard is played by Andrew Wilson-Jenner, whose smarminess and overwhelming cynicism provides a great foil not only to the audience’s expectations, but to the plethora of colourful characters he encounters. Jason Harris thrives alongside him as Kit Marlowe, with stage presence and charm for days (not to mention a rather dazzling sword fight in the finale). Amanda Gregory and Libby Pike play off each other incredibly well as Dame Barnet and Mistress Quickly, with performances that seemed to both engage the audience and rouse their fellow performers in equal measure.
The enthusiasm of the entire cast was absolutely infectious, and that energy elevated every aspect of the show – be it Karl Whitmore’s hilarious commitment to some (intentionally) awful puns, John Hammond’s booming renditions of some of the bard’s more famous lines, or Simon Lynch’s boundless repertoire of ad-libs as the Earl of Oxford – which managed to turn the villain into a somewhat charismatic, likeable figure. Rounding out the cast, Mitch Hamer and Ella Gregory play the young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda, and they do not miss a step. Ella’s character work and facial expressions were flawless throughout, and Mitch’s comedic performance was equal parts peculiar and brilliant.
Of course, any show is only as good as its weakest link. Fortunately, this show seemed not to have such a thing – with every department contributing positively to the overall production. The band performed wonderfully, despite the drummer being repeatedly chastised by the Earl of Oxford (boo), the costumes were absolutely stunning and the lighting really added to the moment in many scenes. The chorus managed to steal the show on more than one occasion, through both eccentric dance routines and cleverly timed gags, and Jane Robert gave a short but stellar performance as Anne Hathaway toward the story’s end.
As a lifelong fan of Shakespeare, ‘A Bard in the Hand’ both peaked my interest and exceeded my expectations. The entire production had such an undeniably positive energy, and appeared to be a truly collaborative, fun experience for the audience and cast/crew alike. Old Bill would be proud.
There are two more performances of A Bard in the Hand tonight (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at 7.30pm in Bembridge Village Hall – and there are still tickets available on the door, so turn up and enjoy the fun!
Reviewed by Michael Mullin