A Midsummer Night's Dream

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The Independent Culture

Seeing Shakespeare in London this summer has resembled some Bardic school disco, with all the girls milling around down one end (Richard III, Hamlet, Shrew) and the boys at the other (Richard II). Things take a further twist as Propeller - Edward Hall and his 14-strong cast of men - arrive in the West End.

Isolated blasts of self-conscious male laughter punctuate the first 15 minutes as actors enter in skirts ("Look! Bloke in a dress!" as Eddie Izzard once put it). But even when our boring sophistication kicks in, there is still much to delight in this Dream.

The real knockabout stuff comes in the rumbustiously physical four-way exchange in Act III, scene two, when Lysander and Demetrius simultaneously proclaim their love for Helena. Jonathan McGuinness's Hermia in particular comes into her - sorry, his - own here, flying around the stage, the hub of a silent movie slapstick punch-up.

This virtuoso comic display just after the interval has a knock-on effect. Because there has been no comedic clearing of the decks for the comics - the rude mechanicals - their play-within-a-play finale takes on a different timbre altogether. It becomes a more serious affair, with the comedy hewn out of the boys' anger and despair at their awful first-night humiliation before the newly married Duke. Thus the most cherished comic set piece in Shakespeare's most beloved comedy grows out of truth. The truthful becomes knockabout and the knockabout truthful. What better approach to this play of transformations and altered states?

The playing styles range from the traditionally fruity voiced (Guy Williams's shaven-headed Oberon, who looks and sounds like he has fallen from some Seventies sci-fi movie) to flashes of refreshing and funny Friends-style Chandler-isms from the lovers. Indeed the production is peppered with pop-culture. Costumes dance as if straight out of Fantasia. The camaraderie of the mechanicals is pure Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. These references are becoming trademarks of Hall's exhilaratingly youthful productions.

That's not to say it's merely tricksy. It is spoken throughout with fabulous speed and clarity, and wonderfully performed. Richard Clothier's madly coquettish Titania (my God, she'll hate herself in the morning) is wild about Bottom. Tony Bell's egomaniac Bottom is gloriously wild about himself. Robert Hands plays the positively frumpy and down-on-herself Helena as if she has read every self-help book ever published, yet still hates herself - a heartbreaking comic turn.

So, Edward Hall imposes men dressed as women upon a textual comic delight in an intoxicating fashion. Several marvellously mucky hung-like-a-donkey gags as the transformed Bottom reveals his impressive new appendage deliver a seaside postcard to complete a uniquely British humorous triumvirate.

Booking to 25 October (0870 060 6622)

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