Theatre review: The Lightning Child, Shakespeare's Globe, London


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The Independent Culture

There's the atmosphere of an end-of-term romp at The Lightning Child which is both the last show in the Globe Season of Plenty and the venue's first attempt at a musical. Playwright Che Walker and composer Arthur Darvill have joined forces on a crude, lewd, rumbustious remix of Euripides' The Bacchae which keeps hopping from ancient Thebes to contemporary London as it offers an updated low-down on the dangers of either denying or uninhibitedly indulging subterranean passions. 

There's more gold lamé and glitter than you could shake a thyrsus at in Matthew Dunster's production which goes for broke on the potty-mouthed adult-pantomime nature of the affair. We begin (where else?) with the 1969 moon landing; the idea is that the tragedy is being presented to astronaut Neil Armstrong (Harry Hepple) as a dire warning that man should know his limits. Our guide to the promiscuous proceedings is Dionysus' sweetly camp West Indian sidekick, Ladyboy Herald (lovely Jonathan Chambers), who descends like a refugee from Aladdin in spangly high heels, Turkish trousers, and gold nipple covers.

“Work it out for yourself on the train home,” he advises us as we try to get our heads round the relevance of the recurring vignettes – a couple of London junkies attempting to clean up; the subjection to gender-testing in 2009 of Caster Semenya, the South African runner; a late glimpse of Billie Holiday and Lester Young et al —- that are meant to refract the themes of sexual ambiguity, uncontrollable appetite and violent retribution in the main story. The links, though, feel either obvious or tenuous and the episodes bloat the show to a patience-trying two-and-three-quarter hours. 

Nevertheless, it's hard not to like The Lightning Child. The songs may never rise above efficient pastiche (Seventies soul, reggae, hip-hop) and the choreography for Dionysus's maenad groupies is in no danger of arousing anybody's orgiastic impulses.  But before it outstays its welcome, the piece energises the audience with its confrontational cheek and revealing lurches of tone, aided by some winningly droll performances. 

Clifford Samuel has the young female groundlings whooping in protest and pleasure with his portrayal of Pentheus, the repressed king lured into the fatal trap of transvestite voyeurism for his resistance to the god of wine and ecstasy. Insisting on punters feeling his impressive six-pack but clearly itching to get into frock, Samuel is a sexy, richly absurd mix of macho misogyny and masculine insecurity.  And Tommy Coleman radiates silky androgynous allure as Dionysus who here appears to be the love-child of James Brown and the artist formerly known as Prince. 

To October 12; 020 7401 9919