Henry IV Part One, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London

A breath of fresh air
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The Independent Culture

The start of this year's season of productions at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park departed with tradition in two striking ways. The launch is usually conducted under iron-grey skies and in conditions that could be said to be "parky" in more ways than one. The play chosen to kick things off is normally A Midsummer Night's Dream. But what have we here? An evening of lovely tranquil balminess and Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One, the kind of national epic we don't often see performed on this theatre's likeably dinky stage.

The start of this year's season of productions at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park departed with tradition in two striking ways. The launch is usually conducted under iron-grey skies and in conditions that could be said to be "parky" in more ways than one. The play chosen to kick things off is normally A Midsummer Night's Dream. But what have we here? An evening of lovely tranquil balminess and Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One, the kind of national epic we don't often see performed on this theatre's likeably dinky stage.

Alan Strachan's lucid account of the play begins with an insistent reminder of Richard II, the king whom Henry IV deposed. In voice-over, we hear lines spoken by Richard in the earlier drama: "Not all the water in the rough rude sea/ Can wash the balm from an anointed king" and "Here, cousin seize the crown." You can believe that these words are still - indeed increasingly - gnawing at the mind of Christopher Godwin's impressive Henry, a tall, combustibly fretful figure who, at the start, prostrates himself before an altar ablaze with conscience-money candles.

The psychological and political continuities between the present and what went before this reign are deftly handled here, and the rebels and their tricky group dynamics are portrayed with a powerful sense that these, too, are men trailing a past and whose nerves are mountingly on edge.

Played against a curved wall of peeling doors that flap open to create a variety of environments, the production efficiently negotiates the shifts between pub and palace, civvy street and the battlefield which, with its firework explosions and nerve-jangling percussion, has a good deal more atmosphere than the pallidly evoked Eastcheap tavern. The hostelry is not disreputable enough.

The same is true of Christopher Benjamin's Falstaff. He's often very funny as he shifts from lie to lie with transparent disingenuousness. But his loveable scapegrace presence and his relationship with the audience feel too cosy. The cost to him and to others of his debauched life are not apparent.

Playing Hotspur, Falstaff's opposite where honour is concerned, Keith Dunphy is physically imposing and engaging. The impetuosity and the emotional awkwardness are there, but the poetry and the charisma are undersold. Still, the performance has more detail and shading than that of Jordan Frieda as Hal, the Prince of Wales who is receiving a liberal education by slumming it with Falstaff but who knows that he will eventually have to reject this way of life. Hal, the sly operator; Hal, the Oedipally anguished son who yearns to prove himself to his father: Frieda merely scratches the surface of these layers in a generalised portrayal.

To 11 Sept (08700 601811)

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