Review: The Donkey Show, Proud Camden

“I’m gonna say hee, and you’re gonna say haw”

So we hit my sixth different production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 with The Donkey Show – A Midsummer Night’s Disco which is less Shakespeare than Shalamar, more Baccara than the Bard. Setting up shop for the summer in nightspot Proud Camden, Athens is thus swapped out for the more hedonistic locale of Club Oberon, where trapeze artists swing from the ceiling, fire breathers roam the stage and pole-dancing go-go boys take the place of fairies.

First created by Randy Weiner and Diane Paulus in 1999, the immersive nature of the production – audience members are encouraged to dance throughout, climbing on podiums optional, – proved a hit formula as disco classics replace iambic pentameter and aerial hoop work is substituted for characterisation. The reimagined and much-reduced story sees merry wanderers of the night Mia, Dmitri, Helen and Sander at the mercy of club hostess Lady Puck, a drag artiste on rollerskates, pushing pills left right and centre at the bidding of nefarious owner Oberon.

This aspect works relatively well. James Gillan is a suitably glittery knavish sprite who revels in ruling the roost and an adroit choice of songs suits the lovers’ travails well – Bronté Barbé’s Helen begs ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ to Dmitri, a drugged-up Sander (Melissa Bayern) croons ‘I Believe In Miracles’ to his new love, a wasted Mia (a very good Vikki Stone) laments ‘If I Can’t Have You’ once she sees her love’s attention deflected elsewhere. 

But the puzzling choice to include Nick Bottom alone of the other characters, in the form of twin guys both called Vinnie, along with the transformation into a donkey (which is…a drug-induced hallucination, I think?) falls flat, their presence is mainly confusing and there’s just no investment with them or indeed with Tytania who is unforgivably reduced to a showgirl.

And in a post-Punchdrunk world, the stakes of immersive theatre have now been raised, exposing the lack of dramatic sophistication here – nothing theatrically new bursts from this treatment. And for me, and maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy (or should that be grumpier), the blurring of the lines of theatre and entertainment here was problematic. Are you an audience member or a clubber? Is it ok to just stand chatting to your pals, taking selfies, rather than watching and listening? Ryan McBryde’s production offers no clear answer and so your experience here could well be variable as was mine. 

At the point where I was being elbowed out of the way yet again for someone to breathlessly take another picture of a shirtless acrobat and then the final indignity of someone spilling their drink all down my leg and laughing, I was less with The Nolans than The Scissor Sisters. Which is a shame, as the company are hugely impressive in their unflagging enthusiasm to keep the energy high, from the security on stilts to the guy tirelessly wiping the floor of those spilled drinks, everyone’s singing along and encouraging you to boogie (for me, Samuel Fogell and Nyron Levy were the best on the floor, Adrian Martel and Dominique Kinisky the best in the air on their hoops). 

But ultimately, if you want to dance to disco music, you go to a disco night; if you want to see Shakespeare, heaven knows you’ve got enough opportunities to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Combining the two in this way feels less like the best of both worlds than being ill met by strobelight.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 21st August

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