Gareth Thomas in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Dear Brutus

From This is Nottingham.

Putting my cards on the table from the off, I have to admit that, of all Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream is the one which always takes me straight back to the agonies of the O-level classroom.

Part panto, part fairy tale, it was evidently someone's natural choice to indoctrinate us third and fourth years into the world of high culture -- if you brushed aside the implications of bestiality and other forms of perverse sex, of course.

Still, those laborious and baffled school read-throughs jinxed the play for me for years and it says something for Richard Baron's accessible and frequently hilarious Playhouse production that it beat the curse.

I even laughed at the Mechanicals' play-within-a-play and I never thought I'd admit to that. Things admittedly looked a little shaky at first. The cast -- whose verse-speaking was uniformly clear, intelligent and musical -- seemed a little hampered by their bizarre Alice In Wonderland-style costumes (a particular problem for the women), and then there was the regrettable decision to make the woodland fairies look and sound like Teletubbies. Why?

But it didn't take long for the strengths to shine through. Gareth Thomas (as Oberon and Theseus) and Sandra Duncan (Titania and Hippolyta) have all the experience and authority you could wish for to tackle the roles of the rulers of both the play's realities (and, when you consider you get the star of Blake's Seven and Angus "Shughie McFie" Lennie from Crossroads, that's two cult TV icons for your money, folks).

As the confused young lovers Sarah Hadland, Hugh Lee, Justine Mitchell and Hywel Morgan rapidly won over the audience with incredibly assured and energetic comedy business which reached an irresistible fever pitch in the second half. I laughed a lot.

Two performances stood out, however. Former Olympic super heavyweight boxer Martin Herdman was an inspired Bottom, a role which can be laboured and tedious. Not here. Herdman's bumptious prima donna had the house in the palm of his hands from the word go and few will forget his hyperbolic death scene as Pyramus.

Even better was Veronica Leer's Puck. In a night which elsewhere emphasised the play's slapstick over its sensuality, she added a welcome sexual charge and a delightful touch of anarchy.

In the midst of some really tough competition, she stole the show and, at the magical conclusion, the audience started applauding her before she'd even finished. A great start to the new season, then, which continues with the same company in J.M. Barrie's Dear Brutus later in the month.

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Last updated on 22nd of October 2000.