Theatre: Reduced Shakespeare Co; Criterion, London

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The Independent Culture
Mel Brooks once undertook to tell The History of the World in a 92-minute feature film. The Reduced Shakespeare Company aren't as ambitious. In their two shows currently running at the Criterion, all they want to do is perform The Complete Works of Shakespeare in just over an hour and a half - or "37 plays in 97 minutes", as the programme puts it - and recount The Complete History of America in 100 minutes - "500 years in 6,000 seconds".

It is to the company's immense credit that you leave neither show with the sort of nausea induced by watching a Janet Street-Porter "yoof" programme on fast-forward. In fact, you leave wanting more. Their knack is to major on certain sections and virtually write off the rest. Thus, they freely admit to ignoring great swathes of American history that contain no potential jokes and blend all 16 of Shakespeare's comedies into one, glorying in the title of "Four Weddings and a Transvestite". Most of his tragic heroines are reduced to mewling psychos with the unsettling habit of throwing up on the front row of the audience.

The cleverest comedy comes from absurd incongruities, performed with panache and an exhausting number of costume-changes by the three American actors, David Letwin, Matthew Hendrickson and Adam Long (who also directs). Shakespeare's history plays are acted out as a game of American football. The Shot Heard Round the World, which started the American Revolution, is turned into JFK-style conspiracy theory. Titus Andronicus is played as a bloodthirsty Noo Yoik chef - "Shakespeare does seem to have gone through an early Quentin Tarantino phase," Hendrickson explains. And Othello is told in rap: "While he was out finding an army/ Were she and Cassio playing hide the salami?"

The trio are now so confident on stage - the constantly updated Shakespeare has been performed around the world for nearly a decade now - they can throw in topical references to Jarvis Cocker and Frank Bruno and improvise at will. During a musical interlude in America, Long gets tangled up in his music-stand and in frustration kicks it into the front row. "I've just broken the first rule of comedy," Long ad libs without batting an eyelid. "Never kill an audience member."

Later on, in a Q & A session on American history, an audience member asks Letwin about the far-right Republican candidate, Pat Buchanan. "We like him," says the actor, quick as a flash. "His speeches are better in the original German, though."

Perhaps surprisingly for such a rapid-fire show, there are longueurs. The gumshoe detective investigating the Cold War towards the end of America, for instance, rather overstays his welcome.

But I still can't help agreeing with the effusive woman I overheard leaving the theatre: "They're such a gleesome threesome, aren't they?"

n `The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)' and `The Complete History of America (Abridged)' at the Criterion Theatre, London WC2. Booking to Sept: 0171-369 1747

JAMES RAMPTON

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