Review: Merrie England, Finborough Theatre

“No other land could nurse them”

The Finborough’s policy of celebrating neglected British musical theatre has unearthed much of interest for fans of the genre, though it is probably safe to say that there have been as many which will remain curiosities as there have bona fide successes worthy of further recognition and reappraisal. It is thereforemost pleasing to discover that their latest rediscovery, the comic opera Merrie England, is a genuine contender for the latter category and a scream of a success.

Written in 1902 by composer Edward German and librettist Basil Hood (a man who apparently died from overwork and undereating…), the show occupies similar territory to Gilbert and Sullivan in its operetta form, considerable lyrical wordplay and complete frivolity when it comes to matters of plot. For what its worth here, the play is set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I as she visits the Mayday celebrations in the village of Windsor, an event which sends the lovelives and rivalries of everyone from monarch to villagers into haywire.

But even this synopsis can’t capture a fraction of the raucous, anarchic fun which is generated on the stage here in this microcosm of eccentric England. Jealous May Queens accuse rivals of witchcraft; travelling actors suggest Shakespeare would be better with songs added; Good Queen Bess shows a darker side when her own romantic ambitions are thwarted; Herne the hunter makes an appearance alongside Robin Hood and Sir George and his dragon – there’s not a patriotic stereotype left untouched, yet the warmth and affection with which the whole thing is played pitches it at just the right level.

Director and choreographer Alex Sutton encourages a huge level of spirited fun from his considerable ensemble, nothing is ever taken too seriously and so the energy levels rarely have the opportunity to flag. If anything, this is where the one weakness of the play comes through in its unwieldy number of plot strands and Hood’s relentless skipping around them that proceeds, but with such gentleness of touch from German’s gossamer-light music and some gloriously silly performances, one hardly notices.

Standouts for me included Daniel Cane’s expansive thespian Walter Wilkins and his hilarious A-Z rendition of Romeo and Juliet, Stephen Darcy’s devilishly foppish Earl of Essex, goofing in the best way possible, the double act of Christoper Killik and Stuart Hickey as battling brothers Long Tom and Big Ben, Jamie Birkett (who is slowly making herself one to watch) as the shrill, attention-seeking May Queen and  Nichola Jolley emerges with a great vocal performance as Jill-All-Alone. 

But great lines are shared throughout the cast and delivered equally well, various combinations of the ensemble executed wittily choreographed routines and this results in a production in which genuine belly laughs come from all angles, not least in the best slow-motion-falling-into-a-river noise you will ever hear. Merrie England captures the Jubilee spirit in just the right gleeful way, reverently irreverent to coin a phrase, and if any investors are looking for a show to give a helping hand to and bring into town, this is most definitely the one.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 12th June

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