June 18th, 2015


Hercules: A Dance Cabaret

Recent shows at the New Wolsey Theatre have grabbed my attention from the very start but this one took a while to grow on me. I was expecting a comedy dance revue but instead got pantomime. The show opens with a misunderstanding and a discussion between the small cast as they try to resolve the problem. Thirty years ago I wrote a show based on a similar premise: two very different shows trying to coexist ('at the same time on the same stage' as we used to say). In my case, Syrup the Stunt Bear was attempting to set a new world record at the same time as a company rehearsed a variety show. In this case the two company principals had different opinions about the show they were due to stage. The solution was a mashup of dance cabaret and a retelling of the Labours of Hercules with occasional quotes from Homer* and lashings of physical comedy. There was audience participation and no end of skillful presentational acting but this polished addressing of the audience was at odds with the stilted delivery of the dialogue between the principals as they played the actor/directors. This was probably affected clumsiness but it came before the performers' skill had been established.

For the rest of the show there was a comic tension between narrator Tom Roden's attempt to deliver classical Greek poetic drama and Pete Shenton's physicality as both Hercules and as the impressario arranging the cabaret. The twelve scenes were cleverly staged and funny; I will never know if it was the performances that got stronger or my response that grew more generous. At the interval I had enjoyed the first part but saw it as nothing special; afterwards I found almost all of it to be very funny. Perhaps someone dropped something in my pint of Aspall's or my adult reserve is alcohol soluble.

The New Wolsey stage surface is too rigid to be ideal for dance but the company seemed unfazed by this. They were energetic and appealling. The audience cheered, laughed and hollered at the fun; hula hooper Tiina Tuomisto got the greatest applause as Hippolyta. Three of the scenes were performed by amateur dancers from Ipswich; a different troupe for each scene amounting to 27 local people. I love this kind of community engagement and I admire Mary Davies' ability to coach the troupes to such excellence. The performances were further enhanced by Lucy Bradridge's witty costume designs. I particularly liked the absurd feet of the Stymphalian birds and the incongruity of the Hydra heads. By contrast to this delightful silliness, her simple versatile set was a sophisticated contribution to the experience.

At risk of marquee quote cliche, this was an evening of fun for all the family or for any lighthearted theatregoer.

*Not that Homer told of Hercules' labours.