THEATRE / Carry on Chaucer: Paul Taylor on The Canterbury Tales at the Garrick

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The Independent Culture
An annual 'Geoffrey Chaucer story-telling competition' on a vicarage lawn sounds about as likely as an annual 'readings from the New Testament contest' in Raymond's Revue Bar. That's the format, though, for Michael Bogdanov's adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, likeably revived now by Peter James. Instead of medieval pilgrims telling stories on the way to Canterbury, we have contemporary types, like the local milkman, major and vicar's wife, competing with their little costume-drama versions of the tales, the winner to be decided by the level of applause.

Getting increasingly hotter under the dog-collar at the fart-filled bawdy romp that, of necessity, ensues is the Reverend Nicholas Nunn (Nicolas Lumley), one of those firm believers in compulsory merriment who is our anxiously bonhomous MC. The Reverend has disqualified the local dustman (Brian Glover in his best professional Yorkshireman-mode) on the ground that the 'Miller's Tale' is too mucky. Glover gets his own back in the in-between bits by telling us his Medieval Top 10 Oldest Jokes in the World, the audience enjoined to warn him if the vicar returns to the stage by singing a loud 'Amen'. Geoffrey Chaucer meets Mother Goose.

'Can I have you back on the lawn?' said a young man who had come to shepherd punters from the pavement outside at the end of the interval. By this stage, the show had pelted you with so many double entendres, you were strip-searching phrases for contraband smut. I only wish I had the presence of mind to chip back with 'You can have me wherever you like, you mad, handsome saucebox.' As it was, I said: 'No, you bloody well can't' How we all roared.

Far from obeying the law of diminishing returns, the sheer relentlessness of the naughty seaside postcard humour disarms on an ever increasing basis. 'Thousands and thousands of years of culture in these islands and all you want is bums,' snaps the Major (David Bailie), peeved and disgusted that his story loses out at the end to Glover's sneaked-in 'Miller's Tale' (the one with musical beds, mooning through windows, and a red-hot poker up the bum). 'Wordsworth - a bit of a mystery to you, Wordsworth,' continues the Major, 'not a sniff of a bum there. I suppose if he'd written 'a host of golden bums . . .'.' The by-now thoroughly philistinised audience was shouting its delighted assent. The publicity for an American musical coming to the Edinburgh Fringe says, more than a little off- puttingly, that the company 'want everyone's inner child to come out and play with them'. Winsomeness is happily not a feature, though, of the collective infantile regression on offer here.

Robin Davies's robust, fruity modern English couplets lack any hint of Chaucer's sly irony, carrying on more in the Carry On manner, as in this bit from 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' where, after discovering that what every woman wants is dominion in bed, Glover sums up with 'Learn the lesson. The good Lord thank / When women say 'no', just have a - shower.' The cast project with skill the atmosphere of good-natured filth. People who freeze at the thought of audience participation should avoid the front stalls. You only wonder what Japanese tourists will make of it.

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