SAM WANAMAKER PLAYHOUSE at THE GLOBE.
There’s sparkling comedy and cracking fights as Francis Beaumont’s stage-struck Knight battles to live up to his chivalric ideals.
The gap between the audience and the stage has always been pleasantly blurred in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. But the fourth wall comes crashing down in this winter’s revival of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, as the Citizen and his Wife not only sit on the wooden benches among the punters, but harangue the actors on stage and insist on having their say about the course of the action itself.
It’s all part of Francis Beaumont’s brilliantly constructed play-within-a-play, and under Adele Thomas’ masterly direction, this is an action-packed visit to Jacobean London, where the difference between the upper echelons and the ‘plebs’ is debated just as keenly as it is today at the gates of Downing Street.
Beaumont makes it risible that a London grocer’s apprentice should aspire to the chivalric heights of knighthood, and his heraldic symbol of the pestle – usually used to grind spices – reveals his humble origins as well having its own saucy connotations.
But the Citizen, Phil Daniels, and the Wife, Pauline McLynn, are having none of it – if the play they’ve come to see needs a knight, their apprentice Rafe must and will take the role, even if they have to shove the unwilling lad onto the boards, and storm the stage to see that he gets his due in terms of plot and character development.
Bustling, gossipy and determined, Pauline McLynn is perfect as the Wife. It’s 1607, so she hasn’t got a mobile phone to go off during the show but she makes the best of all other possible irritants – rustling sweets in a bag, whispering to neighbours and bursting with pride over Rafe’s progress. ‘Let him kill a lion with his pestle!’ she calls out helpfully.
If her interest in the lad is anything more than just maternal, her loving husband hasn’t noticed, and Phil Daniels’ authority as the prosperous Citizen is central in holding the tangled plot together.
Matthew Needham makes an appealingly weedy Ralph, gradually building the apprentice’s emotional strength as he performs knightly deeds, spurred by the pestle which glows like the grail inside its presentation box.
He certainly learns about fighting the hard way as he takes a pasting from his rival, the iron-willed Jasper (Jolyon Coy). Their bloody but hilarious set-to has to be one of the best-ever fights choreographed for the stage, spreading throughout the theatre and beyond, and involving almost the entire cast. It’s great work from fight director Kevin McCurdy.
There are fine performances throughout, with Paul Rider bringing a particular charm to the irrepressibly mirthful Merrythought, a man who sings more than he speaks and simply cannot be miserable, even in the face of death. No wonder his wife Mistress Merrythought, Hannah McPake, gets so furious with him.
Louise Ford is an enchanting but wilful Luce, the bride-elect, who wriggles free from simpering dandy Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell). And special mention must go to George, played by Dean Nolan, whose comic gifts bring a sparkle to all his scenes, and whose dance moves are a law unto themselves.
The film Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes to mind more than once while watching this show – though of course Mr Beaumont created his ‘something completely different’ 400 year earlier.
His play was evidently a complete flop when first performed. He’d be pleased to see how great a success it’s now become on the London stage he loved so much.
Until January 11