“Welcome one and all to the Tabard Inn”
I love a tankard, especially one full of mulled wine on a chilly winter’s evening, and so I was most pleased to be able to get one at the Southwark Playhouse. Not in the bar though, but in the main house itself which has been converted into a working medieval tavern for a production of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The yarns have been adapted for the stage by Tom Daplyn and Tacit Theatre into modern language to give their examinations of the many aspects of human behaviour greater currency for today’s audience in this piece of story-telling theatre.
Director Juliane von Sivers and the creative team have further broken the mould by aiming for an immersive experience with the show. We’re all punters in the Tabard inn – Cara Newman’s design puts the bar at one end and has the seating in the round circling a raised stage – and the team of seven actor-musicians form the entertainment, working through six of the stories and interleaving them with some rowdy tub-thumping (though perhaps a tad anachronistic) sing-alongs. The combined effect is thus one of a genial informality, a beautifully relaxed evening down the pub with a tapestry of stories being woven around us.
There is – wisely I suspect – no attempt to modernise the actual stories: we variously hear from the Knight, the Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Nun’s Priest, the Friar and lastly the Summoner. Though we’re in this unspecified medieval time, the characters are recognisable, their motivations relatable and their emotions timeless, part of the reason Chaucer’s writing has endured so well. And the company are alive to this and keep us engaged by ramping up the bawdiness with some over-exaggerated comedic business and constantly heightening the fun factor, whether through being pulled through a trapdoor, being recruited to an army or bantering with any number of the audience.
John Canmore makes a great host/landlord as Harry Bailey, a point of calm stability in the madness that characterises much of the interaction around him. There’s excellent work from the whole cast: Rosalind Blessed being a particular delight, Ellie Moore and Theone Rashleigh impressing with their additional musical skills and Harry Napier amusingly proves just how fast one can run whilst carrying a cello through a crowded room. The Canterbury Tales proves once again how innovative a space the Southwark Playhouse has become and offers a delightful warm bolthole from the wintry chill.
Running time: advertised as 90 minutes, but ran closer to 105 minutes on the night (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 7th January 2012
Note: if you’re not a fan of audience participation – of which there is only the very mildest variety here – then avoid sitting in the front row