Review: Pocket Dream, Propeller at the Underbelly Festival

“Why are you wearing a tutu?”

As part of the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank, Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller have revisited and shrunk their production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream down into a 1 hour, family-friendly version called Pocket Dream. A company of six bring the customary Propeller rough-and-tumble physicality to the production which is matched by the approach to the text, which has been adapted and condensed by Roger Warren but remains utterly recognisable. Everything has been trimmed down, save the Rude Mechanicals’ play which is mostly all there, only Theseus and Hippolyta have been given the axe and even they make a delightful surprise appearance at the end of the show.

The men were all identically and androgynously dressed in white and a toy box placed centre-stage from which all the accoutrements to create the various characters were produced: pyjamas tops and nightdresses for the lovers, feathery, glittery cloaks, tutus and collars for the fairies and workmen outfits for the Mechanicals. Just two umpires’ chairs on the circular playing space were needed for them to create their magic. And magic it was, with frequently laugh-out-loud funny sections mixed in with poetic moments, demonstrating a deep understanding of how to make Shakespeare really sing and connect with an audience. Their anarchic spirit was still in evidence too with a few moments of meta-theatre sprinkled in too, the above-mentioned quote being the best, blink-and-miss-it instance of that.

Vince Leigh probably emerged as my favourite out of the company: his powerful, sweeping presence as Oberon was a majestic pleasure and his moving later remorse for his manipulations of his wife, an unexpectedly touching moment and he relished the grandstanding and over-acting of Nick Bottom, having the audience in near constant laughter whether as the ass or Pyramus. But Richard Dempsey was also excellent as the proud Titania, hoodwinked by Puck’s spell into serenading Bottom with an ace rendition of Purple Haze and also as the lofty Helena, finding a great sparky chemistry Jonathan McGuinness’ scrappy Hermia, the disparity in their heights proving a perfect fit. Tam Williams’ impish Puck and Alasdair Craig’s ever-frustrated Peter Quince were additional highlights in a breathless array of innovations and quick-changes.

Music and sound also played a great part in the show: All I Have To Dream kept reappearing as a theme tune of sorts, popping up in a variety of formats, arrangements and instrumentations, the best being the acapella singing. The company also shared the responsibility of creating sound effects: making water glasses sing every time magic was performed or playing the waterphone, spring drum or trombone.

As an adult, I absolutely loved the show and it made me really want to see it in its entirety so I hope that it is toured again as it seems like it would be a fantastic full-length production. But the audience on this Thursday matinée was predominantly young school-children, it is a family show after all, and it was good to see how enthusiastically they responded to so much of what went on. A brilliant touch was the post-show Q&A session where several aspects of the stagecraft were examined, kids brought up onstage to learn how to do the slaps, kicks and pratfalls, play the various instruments and question the cast on aspects of their rehearsal process and how many bruises they all had. The actors seemed to enjoy this as much as the kids, who got something extra to take away with them from the experience, and it reaffirmed the level of engagement of the young audience members which has to be a most gratifying thing.

Running time: 1 hour (without interval)
Programme cost: free cast-sheet available
Booking until 14th May

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