THEATRE / A smooth way with the ruff stuff: Paul Taylor on Century's A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Lilian

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'IF we shadows have offended . . .': Roger Hyams's Puck lays a thumping comic stress on that conditional, as though to imply that the risk of audience dissatisfaction must be reckoned extremely remote. In the circumstances, his cocky assurance is far from unjustified, for Stephen Unwin's A Midsummer Night's Dream - his first production as artistic director of Century Theatre touring company - communicates Shakespeare's comedy with a freshness that does not depend on some novel, distorting 'concept', and with an uncluttered clarity that shows how mistaken it is to equate simplicity with lack of sophistication.

The merit of Unwin's patchy but beguiling Dream is that it would speak equally to a 10-year-old coming to the play for the first time and to a theatrically experienced adult. To say that it is in Elizabethan dress might conjure up a depressing vision of wrinkly tights, but far from it. With skilfully judged shifts around the play's various moods, all the proceedings take place in Bunny Christie's bare, magical green box with its upstage cupboard which flips open to reveal the moon and also act as a box from which Puck and Oberon (Robert Langdon Lloyd) can view the mortals' mix-ups.

To give a sharper edge to the social subversiveness magic briefly expedites in this play, Elizabeth McKechnie's grinning, grimacing Titania is a cross-species image of Elizabeth the First. She is surrounded by male fairies in ruffs (the same actors doubling as the mechanicals) who - in reaction to the recent St Trinians and hissing cat school of fairy - seem to have gone to the other sedate extreme, an entourage with about as much sense of mischief as the King's Singers. Comic seditiousness is excellently conveyed by Roger Hyams's hairy, glinting-eyed Puck, naked except for beads and Elizabethan 'trunks' which give him the look of an impish satyr. Whether addressing the audience in the manner of a Jewish stand-up comic or creating havoc among the lovers (as when he throws deafening caps around the stage in all directions to confuse the two men in their chase), Mr Hyams brings exactly the right unsafe but engagingly smart-ass spirit to the role.

He also excels as a wonderfully sniffy and precious Philostrate, master of the court revels in Athens and very much not a devotee of the sort of theatrical fare produced by the mechanicals, whose performance here is delightfully disastrous - Jeremy Swift's Bottom turning Pyramus's death into a one-man slasher movie in a mime that looks more like genocide than suicide. The alternative entertainments Philostrate offers Theseus include 'The Battle with the Centaurs to be sung by an Athenian eunuch to the harp' and 'The thrice-three Muses mourning for the death of learning, late deceased in beggary'. Not exactly crowd-pleasers, by the sound of it, but during bad Dream's I've often reflected that I'd much rather be sitting through them. Here, though, I was more than happy to stay put.

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(Photograph omitted)