A country churchyard lush with meadow flowers, a coop of happy hens nearby …. The seductive location is typical of where The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company nightly strikes its stage. Each summer, they tow their two-storey wagon to commons and stubble fields across England’s southern counties. In style, though, they are travelling players of 16th-century Italy. It’s just a pity they can’t have Italian weather.
Commedia dell’arte – the tradition that gave us Mr Punch and the foundations of pantomime – is a rare discipline, even in Italy. But the Rudes have made it their own. Every show features the same stock characters – Harlequin, Pierrot, The Doctor and others – whose facial expressions and movements identify them as servants or masters, kindly or mean. Themes have ranged from the Wild West gold rush to Grease-style romcom. This year’s Harlequin Goes to the Moon has a Florentine setting. Leonardo da Vinci has drawn up plans for a flying machine, but his rival Il Dottore Pazzo, a loony professor with lunar ambitions, has got there first with the patent.
Into this astronomic plot, writer-director-composer Pete Talbot feeds a dizzying number of romantic sub plots, made dizzier by cross-gender disguises and the fact that every actor is already playing two characters. The dreamy stable boy Paglia (Richard Kidd, a charmer in the Pierrot role) pines for chirpy lady’s maid Colombina (Natalia Campbell with a debt to Barbara Windsor), but what he longs for even more is to climb to the Moon (cue the old vaudeville ladder gag) to retrieve lost things: “the coins that fall from your pockets, the light that fades from a rabbit’s eyes when you hit it on the head with a stick …”.
By nightfall every Jack has his Jill, the “boat with wings” has proved spaceworthy, and the capering cast has worked its magic on a range of original ballads self-accompanied on violin, mandolin and musical saw. Alas, rain did stop play briefly in Sussex that night, but the spell was impervious.
Touring until 11 Aug (therude mechanicaltheatre.co.uk)