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Theatre Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Noel Coward Theatre

30/09/2013 14:06 BST | Updated 29/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Shakespeare's comedies are at their best when they're playful, fast, irreverent and - crucially - funny. This bright, spirited production of A Midsummer Night's Dream succeeds on all fronts.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a romantic comedy about meddling in love set across two worlds - the austere, cold world of our reality, and the fantastic world of the fairies in their enchanted wood. The fairies in the wood are the perpetrators of this meddling, and their victims are interlopers from the real world who've wandered into their forest.

The great draw for audiences in this production is the casting with Sheridan Smith in a dual role as Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and David Walliams as Bottom, part of an amateur dramatic group preparing to perform for the Duke and Hippolyta. Yet there is so much to this production than simply its star draws.

Christopher Oram's set for the enchanted wood, where most of the play takes place, is magical. A large, full supermoon dominates the backdrop whilst the forest is full of grandiose decay with smashed crystal chandeliers on the ground, and a damaged cast iron ornate spiral staircase winding up into the trees.

Michael Grandage's direction is excellent. The pace of the play is kept snappy and sprightly. It never once slows up or loses its way. Grandage has also succeeded in bringing together a very strong cast, encouraging them to emote Shakespeare's poetry in a way that audiences can understand what the characters mean, even if they can't quite get the language used.

And this is crucial as many in the audience readily admitted they were not frequent visitors to the theatre, and even fewer were familiar with Shakespeare's text.

David Walliams' casting seemed to be the main attraction for most of the audience when I went to see the show. An audible gasp of excitement rippled through the theatre when he first appeared on the stage. Yet his performance was the more mixed of the cast.

Yes, his performance is very camp, very Little Britain, but given that he's playing Bottom that's not a bad match. And given the response from the audience, clearly this depiction, this style of performance, was exactly what they turned up to see.

The concern for me was Walliams' discomfort at being part of a cast. He excelled in those moments when he was allowed to pull focus, to be the centre of attention, but seemed to struggle when his character was not at the forefront of the scene in question.

Nevertheless his showmanship really came to the fore when Bottom and the group of actors put on their shambolic amateur dramatic play. Here he steals the scene - and rightly so. When given the spotlight, few can generate laughs quite like Walliams.

Sheridan Smith continues to excel. Her range as an actor is extraordinary. Ibsen melodrama, Shakespearian comedy, Legally Blonde musical... There seems to be nothing she cannot master. Her performance is assured and confident. The woman is a star, for sure.

However, it would be remiss to talk about the acting talent on show without mentioning the four actors playing the squabbling lovers Hermia (Susannah Fielding), Helena (Katherine Kingsley) Lysander (Sam Swainsbury) and Demetrius (Stefano Braschi). They are all superb, especially in the sequence of love declarations, misunderstandings and pursuit that comes from being the victims of the fairies' misadventures, bringing much physical comedy to their roles.

Indeed Kingsley as Helena comes very close to stealing the show completely with an extraordinarily brilliant depiction of Helena as a desperately needy fangirl, obsessively pursuing the object of her affection.

Yet what one comes away with is a sense that all the components of this production - the excellent acting, the first-class direction and the superb set design - all worked together to push all parties involved to greater heights.

As a result, I saw an audience, unused to Shakespeare, leave having fully understood and loved what can be a very difficult text to master. If you can get hold of tickets, I urge you to go.

Noel Coward Theatre, London

To November 16, 2013