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Review: All's Well That Ends Well at Newcastle Theatre Royal

The Royal Shakespeare Company may well have saved the best of its Newcastle season till last

Bertram and his fellow squaddies in All's Well That Ends Well
Bertram and his fellow squaddies in All's Well That Ends Well

This is a production that really purrs - well cast, beautifully performed and pleasing to both ear and eye. Director Nancy Meckler and her actors have succeeded in lifting the compelling narrative thread out of what many might regard as a daunting chunk of Shakespearean text.

This is the difficult comedy, the funny old thing generally reckoned to be not that funny. It is rarely done, which again underlines the achievement here.

None of those I spoke to at the theatre on Tuesday could remember another RSC production here this century. Meanwhile umpteen Hamlets and A Midsummer Night’s Dreams seem to have come our way.

The plot revolves around Helena, the orphaned daughter of a humble doctor who has been adopted by the Countess of Rossillion.

Helena has fallen in love with the Countess’s son, Bertram, and is granted his hand in marriage by the French King after using one of her late dad’s remedies to cure him of a debilitating illness - and it’s worth the ticket price just to see Greg Hicks performing handstands after first appearing as a candidate for intensive care.

Bertram is not chuffed to be handed a wife he doesn’t love. He stomps off to war declaring that he’ll never accept Helena until she wears his ring and conceives their child - which will never happen. Never, ever!

But ha ha! Feasibly Helena could be seen as a bit of a minx but Joanna Horton’s performance is a winning one. Her scenes with Charlotte Cornwell’s wise and likeable Countess bring moments of great tenderness.

Generally the action swings between Helena’s travails and the loutish stomping of Alex Waldmann’s soldier and his mates, seeming kitted out for a 21st Century tour of Afghanistan rather than - in the original text - the Tuscan war.

Jonathan Slinger, seen as Hamlet earlier in the season, returns as Bertram’s camp friend Parolles, a wisecracking shyster with neither courage nor scruple. It’s a great performance, full of comic poignancy. Even when he gets his comeuppance, deservedly so, you feel sorry for him.

There are lots of other notable turns. This is, as I’ve said, a production in which every cog whirrs smoothly.

Katrina Lindsay’s set, with its giant keyhole-like window at its centre and great woodland silhouettes, is beautiful and adaptable.

It can throw shadows and shafts of light, it opens wide and it shuts tight. It is by turn the court of the French King, a rumbustious drinking den - complete with electric guitarist - and, in the final moment of revelation, a magic box to render Bertram speechless.

Music and choreography play a big part and it’s a blast of hip hop that opens proceedings.

Fortunately none of this is necessary to keep the audience awake although on Tuesday you could have heard a pin drop in the moments of high emotional intensity.

If you’re dithering, try to see this production before we say goodbye to the RSC for another year. You never know when Shakespeare’s difficult comedy will come round again.


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