Having seen Hamlet at the Tobacco Factory in February, settling down into our seats at the opening night of All’s Well that Ends Well as part of the 2016 Shakespeare Season was like catching up with old friends. Actors that had played angst-ridden, grief-stricken characters on the brink of madness in Hamlet were suddenly able to show their playful sides, and it was a particular treat to see Alan Mahon shake off the troubled Hamlet and embrace the more light-of-heart Charles Dumaine. 

Those with minor parts in Hamlet have been brought to the fore in All’s Well. We see much more of the very likeable Eleanor Yates as lead character Helena - a refreshingly strong, witty and cunning woman in love with Bertram (Craig Fuller). She means to have him for a husband even though he’s of a much nobler background and eventually wins him by curing the dying King of France (Christopher Bianchi), who grants her permission to marry any man of her choosing. Bertram, however, is less keen. Immediately after the marriage he flees to Italy to fight and discovers the delightful Diana, with whom he falls promptly in lust. He sends a letter back to his new bride saying he won’t love her until she wears his ring, which he’ll never give up, and carries his child, which will never happen.

Helena duly travels to Italy, befriends Diana and uses her to trick Bertram out of his ring and into bed (I told you she was cunning).

Bertram is a hard character to like. His callous rejection of Helena leaves even his Mother (brilliantly played by Julia Hills) prepared to disown him. Fuller gives Bertram a certain floppy-haired charm, but it’s difficult not to walk away feeling that Helena could do much, much better.

For me (and the rest of the audience judging by the laughs), it is Paul Currier that wins the night. Strutting around as pompous peacock Parolles he is full of bovine stupidity and tales of his own valor, blissfully unaware that he’s heading for a very big fall. In truth, he’s a coward, nicely demonstrated in the way Currier makes his character wince and jump like a puppy on bonfire night every time a cannon fires on the battlefield. He’s finally undone when his ‘friends’ kidnap and blindfold him, pretending to be the enemy and threatening to execute him if he doesn’t spill the beans on his fellow troops, which he unhesitatingly does, of course.

There’s a good deal of rhythmic and catty banter between Parolles and Lafew (Ian Barritt), which is highly entertaining, plus some great one liners and put-downs throughout. I’m still looking for an opportunity to call someone a “saucy knave” or to exclaim “by my old beard and every hair that’s in it”.

Julia Hills - wonderful as Helena’s new mother-in-law - has some of the best lines of all and in the opening scenes warns against being like “the jeweller who polishes the pearl past the point of perfection”. By the closing scenes it is clear that Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Tobacco Factory Theatres have given this particular jewel just enough polish. It really is pretty perfect.

By Wendy Johnson

Shakespeare Season is co-produced by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well are part of the 2016 season running between 11th February and 30th April at Tobacco Factory Theatres. The productions will then tour. Book tickets here.

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Tobacco Factory Theatres
Theatre
The Tobacco Factory

A popular theatre and café bar in Southville, with a programme of touring and in-house productions, childrens' and music events