As You Like It, Rose of Kingston, Kingston upon Thames

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The Independent Culture

Sir Peter Hall, the Rose of Kingston's artistic director, allowed himself one moment of twinkling bitchiness as he took the press round the not-yet-finished but wonderfully inviting new venue, which he has just opened for a preview season with his Bath production of As You Like It.

Sir Peter Hall, the Rose of Kingston's artistic director, allowed himself one moment of twinkling bitchiness as he took the press round the not-yet-finished but wonderfully inviting new venue, which he has just opened for a preview season with his Bath production of As You Like It. The theatre is £6m short of the £11m needed for completion, but the project represents extraordinary value for money. Hall couldn't resist pointing out that the famously troubled new Hampstead Theatre cost £26m for a 350-seater. The Rose requires less than half that amount for a 1,000-seater. "It's cheap," declares Hall, "because it knows what it is."

Certainly, the place exudes a confident sense of identity. The auditorium may be modelled on the Elizabethan Rose, but there's nothing remotely antiquarian or fusty about this space. You feel that it's not there to test theories about original Shakespearean performance, but because the relationship it offers between actor and audience is timelessly liberating - a dynamic affair of direct communication rather than of the spied-on pretending to ignore the spies.

Instead of being in the jutting-out, thrust-stage configuration familiar from the Swan and the Globe, the acting area here is a long and fairly narrow lozenge-shape (approximately 30ft deep and 50ft wide). In front of this there's a pit where, for £5 a ticket, the groundlings can sit on cushions, and behind them the three tiers of galleries. With nobody more than 40 feet away from the performers and everyone getting a full view of the proceedings, the effect is epically intimate.

There's a youthful buzz about the spacious breeze-block foyers, which could hardly be less olde worlde. The feel is distinctly forward-looking. One admirable initiative will be a creative link between the projected permanent company (which will perform eight shows a year) and the drama department of Kingston University. Every year, 10 prospective actors, two designers and two directors will get hands-on teaching from Hall's team. If they pass at the end of the first year, they will graduate to being part of the company for the second.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this version of As You Like It. It strikes me, though, as a pretty ordinary production with a central performance that is instructively at odds with the nature of this theatre. Rebecca Hall, Peter's daughter, is obviously talented, but her Rosalind is too playfully low-key and privately self-ironic for the venue. In her floppy hat and corduroys, she's a lanky, likeable, bashfully boyish Ganymede. Her intelligent effects, though, are small-scale.

On film, this interpretation could perhaps convince you that the heroine is "fathom deep" in love. But in the Rose of Kingston, it seems fussy and lacking in the passion with which more senior actors (like Philip Voss as Jaques) manage to flood this exciting auditorium.

To 18 December (0870 890 6004)

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