First Night: Canterbury Tales, Gielgud Theatre, London

Boisterous and bawdy, but 'God's plenty' triumphs
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The Independent Culture

It's not often that you get the work of a 14th-century poet on Shaftesbury Avenue. True, this is Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales have been seen in the West End before. But previous stage treatments have been intent of suggesting that his tales were nothing more than the medieval precursors of the Carry On romps.

This two-part RSC version - skilfully adapted by Mike Poulton and now brought to London thanks to the good offices of the producers Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright - certainly revels in the boisterous bawdy. For example, the bedroom farce of "The Reeve's Tale" contains a fart-fest that makes the cowboys' baked-beans wind problems in Blazing Saddles sound like polite conversation at Balmoral.

There's "swyving" and cuckolding and bare butts galore, one of the latter treated to a red hot poker in the "nether eye". But ribaldry is only part of the story, as is richly demonstrated by this show, which is presented in two full-length, largely self-contained sections and directed, with terrific verve and resourcefulness by Greg Doran, Rebecca Gatward, and Jonathan Munby.

"Here is God's plenty" was the poet John Dryden's verdict on The Canterbury Tales: one of the strengths of the production is the variety of styles it finds to suit the different narrative types - ranging from adorably daft puppetry for "The Nun's Priest's Tale" about the preening Chauntecleer and Pertelote to eerie shadow-play for "The Franklin's Tale" about a wife's psychological unrest during her husband's trip abroad and the risky black rocks upon which her ambiguous anxiety fixes.

A crack ensemble, packed with personality, fall on the material with gusto and finesse, relishing the opportunities provided both within the stories and between them, as the pilgrims on the way to Canterbury bicker and fight and use their self-revealing tales as sharp weapons in their feuds. Paolo Dionisotti is superb as the Prioress, who always looks on the point of collapse with her tense, prissy piety and as a succession of crones.

The West Indian lilt Claire Benedict brings to the Wife of Bath is a lovely way of refreshing our sense of the woman's laid-back raunchiness and flirtatious easygoing humour.

Staged with vivid simplicity on a bare green sward with a single tree and some ingeniously adaptable props and structures, the production is overseen by Mark Hadfield's shy, scribbling, amusingly furtive Chaucer.

Though the character breaks into a very funny contemporary rap mode when delivering his story at the start of the second section, it's good that Poulton's adaptation (unlike most) remains remarkably faithful to the tone of Chaucer's verse, updating some of the vocabulary for accessibility but preserving the flavour of the slyly sardonic irony.

In this adaptation, the pilgrims actually reach Canterbury and the show ends with a violently fervent and uplifting Latin anthem. God's plenty? Amen to that.

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