Previews: The Canterbury Tales, Gielgud Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

This new two-part production of The Canterbury Tales from the Royal Shakespeare Company features a rapped introduction, puppetry, shadow play, opera and farce. Adapted by Mike Poulton, directed by Gregory Doran and produced by Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt, the show has already notched up a string of performances in Washington DC's Kennedy Center and in Spain, and has toured England.

"The young love it," Holt says. "The musical score is a mix of everything you ever heard of and some things you have never heard of."

The two three-hour plays are self-contained, but Chaucer enthusiasts can (on Thursdays and Saturdays) see both parts in the same day. Part 1 juxtaposes the pageantry and chivalric heroism of "The Knight's Tale" with the bawdy "Miller's Tale". "The Nun's Priest's Tale" traces a vain cockerel's abduction by a coy fox. The Wife of Bath, meanwhile, dominates the second part with her outrageous coquetry and tales of unfortunate husbands.

"It is very, very funny indeed," Holt says, but she insists it is all more than just a jolly romp. "What Poulton and Doran have retained is different from any Canterbury Tales I have ever seen. It's the spirituality of it; it's still there." As well as being "utterly filthy", Holt says the journey of a group of pilgrims chronicled in the Tales is profoundly moving. The pivotal moment comes in the finale when, as they reach Canterbury, it is "very difficult not to weep".

Holt reasons that the one thing that unites the disparate pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales is, of course, the Christian faith of the Middle Ages. Yet, with its diverse musical score, versatile ensemble and mischievous narrative, The Canterbury Tales should appeal to a far wider audience than just Christians.

Today to 30 September (08709 500 915): Part 1 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at 7.30pm and Thursday and Saturday matinées at 2pm; Part 2 on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings at 7.30pm

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