This is the fourth in the season of plays directed by Michael Grandage at the Noël Coward Theatre. The season has already given us the likes of Simon Russell Beale in 'Privates on Parade', and stars such as Judi Dench, Ben Wishaw and Daniel Radcliffe. Here, Sheridan Smith takes on the roles of Hippolyta and Titania, and David Walliams (best known perhaps for his appearances in the TV series 'Little Britain') tackles the role of Nick Bottom, a weaver.
As we turn the meteorological corner into Autumn, this may not be quite the best or most appropriate time for this much-loved and much-produced play. Still, whether it is actually summer or not, makes very little difference given that the plot stretches believability to breaking point, rather like a dream as the title implies. And as the sun sinks in the real sky, the moon takes over on stage. Christopher Oram's design for the scenes in the woods is dominated by a gigantic moon which glares down rather ominously on the proceedings. In fact, the fairy woods turn-out not to be the kind with foliage and trees as one might expect, but are represented by a crumbling edifice with rubble from one enormous wall which has collapsed, and provides a suitable opening for the moon.
In the multitude of productions of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' the fairies come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and guises. Here, Michael Grandage has elected to describe them as a group of cannabis-smoking hippies. That poses something of a problem as the fairies take on the qualities of that group of kaftan-wearing, flower-wielding people from the mid-1960s. Some of those qualities fit well, but magic didn't seem to me to be among them. Still, it offers the chance to include well-known songs from the hippie era, most notably from the Carpenters.
Sheridan Smith doesn't have a huge amount to do early on at the start of the play in Athens and again right at the end with the performance of the tradesmen's play. But when we get to the scenes in the fairy kingdom, Ms Smith shows us her spirited and fiery nature in her argument over a page boy with Pádraic Delaney's Oberon. And when Miss Smith wakes from sleep and discovers Bottom changed into an ass, she convincingly demonstrates that she is completely and totally besotted with him. David Walliams also doesn't disappoint in his humorous portrayal of Nick Bottom, though I don't think there will be much in the way of surprise in store for devoted fans of 'Little Britain'. Nick Bottom is the dominant persona in the band of 'rude mechanicals' who decide to put on a play for the Duke's wedding. In fact, Bottom really takes over the play almost entirely, initially wanting to play every part. So, Mr Walliams's character turns out to be the kind of camp, cravat-wearing amateur thespian who might well take over at rehearsals in the local church hall, and could easily have appeared in 'Little Britain'.
The four lovers (Katherine Kingsley as Helena, Stefano Braschi as Demetrius, Susannah Fielding as Hermia, and Sam Swainsbury as Lysander) provide more humour in their finely-timed squabbles about which of them are going to pair-off in wedded bliss. In their love-duels in the forest, the men end-up losing their trousers and displaying their toned torsos and Persil-white underwear, providing much to admire even if the concept seems a little dated.
When we get to the play-within-a-play, we find Mr Walliams playing a Roman general, or maybe an emperor, and there is plenty of fun to be had in the 'amateur' drama which includes disparate characters such as a talking wall and the man in the moon. However, the finale does not match the cleverly-worked subtlety which we experienced in the RSC's production at the Novello back in 2006.
"The production – the penultimate in the Grandage Company's season at the Noel Coward Theatre – is, in the final analysis, a bit too tame, despite the hippies, to release the full wondrously disruptive power of the dream world or reverberate with the after-tremors of its transforming experience. It's undeniably attractive but the spell it casts is not deep."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"This is an enormously spirited and fast-moving show....Grandage's production is sexy, swift and sure-footed, a constant delight to the eye and never lets us forget that this is a play about the magical capacity for change. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"I entered this fourth production in his [Michael Grandage] ambitious season of plays at the Noël Coward with high hopes, only to emerge feeling more than a little disappointed...pacing the show exceptionally fast. At times it feels almost perfunctory, not least in the performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” which normally provides the play with a blissfully funny climax but here seems both rushed and curiously lacking in comic invention. Much of the problem, here and elsewhere, stems from David Walliams’s Bottom.He has always struck me as a curiously chilly comedian whereas Bottom the weaver should be all warmth, bluster and heart. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"While the play’s dreamy quality is well realised, there’s not much sense of its darkness, and even in its sexier moments there is an air of efficiency rather than passion. This is a spirited and populist account of a perennial favourite, but it lacks magic."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard