19th Nov, 2017

Vice Versa - RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon - Review

Vice Versa

RSC Swan Theatre

Review by Matthew Salisbury

THE HOT-BLOODED crazy world of comedy Rome arrives at the Swan in this new production of a new play. And by the time it leaves, the memories are all of laughter, laughter and more laughter.

Overbearing masters, scheming servants, thwarted lovers, daft academics – they’re all here. All in full colour and at full pace.

Phil Porter deserves every award that surely will come his way for a script which pays homage to its principal Roman targets and its more modern cultural references and above all is funny. Very funny. Possibly the funniest.

Roman theatre, for those who want to keep up the pretence that there’s still something educational in this joyful romp, scrubs up similar to the rest when it comes to farcical plots, stock characters and an intent to kill by sheer wordplay alone.

There are more double entendres in the opening ten minutes here than in the whole Carry On canon and they and much, much better. From weapon polishing to getting things straight, it’s high-quality tomfoolery and very funny.

In Rome Sweet Rome you’re never too far from a pun. The arrival of the weekly grocery delivery offers the chance for a tour de force of visual punnery commanding an ovation of its own through verbal skill, visual timing, daft props and relentless pace. If Ronnie Barker had performed this, we still be watching it every Christmas.

This was just one little set piece in a show offering plenty of rich examples; the slapstick meal, the man pretending to be a statue and so on. But in truth, there is not a single moment that isn’t shot through with brilliant comedic invention.

The workrate demanded of the cast in a production as brash and full-on as this is extreme and boy do they deliver. There is not a performance in the production from top to bottom which is not fabulously committed.

Felix Hayes as the cocksure but crackpot General Braggadocio starts off with all the dials on ten and never lets up. Red-faced and on the point of meltdown throughout, he blusters and bullies but still has time to ridicule himself. It’s a case of excellent material meeting a superb characterisation.

His servant Dexter is played with faultless timing and great naturalness by Sophia Nomvete. Acting as the link between stage and audience she drives every scene along with energy, precision and panache. Another first-class performance.

There are star turns aplenty elsewhere: Nicholas Day’s willingly-embroilled neighbour is one, Kim Hartman’s leather-clad woman of the night is another. No weak links to be found in this show – and the run into summer will only make things tighter.

Only Mr Porter and director Janice Honeyman would know exactly how much the initial script has been enhanced by brilliant additions in rehearsal. But the outcome speaks of an attention to detail and a licence to milk the moment that have repaid it bucketloads.

Colin Richmond’s design offers a clever blend of rigid door frames and billowing scenery cloths together with a fully-exploited high gallery and plenty of ladder trickery. Consequently the production is always watchable and full of inventive surprises.

This is not the most scholarly exploration of the Roman theatre tradition nor is it just pantomime for grown-ups. It is simply one of the most unapologetically funny evenings ever offered at this theatre and you should go. You really should.

Vice Versa runs until September 9.

Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.

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