Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
The Canterbury Tales — Guildford Shakespeare Company
14 – 29 July 2023, The Astolat Pavilion, Stoke Park, Guildford
A fun-filled, playful evening for everyone.
Ever sat in a classroom feeling bored to tears by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? The multi-talented GSC have come up with a sparkling, hilarious antidote to memories of dry lessons: an evening of brilliant entertainment. Here in song, dance, puppetry and comic acting they tell seven of Chaucer’s pilgrims’ stories of honour rewarded and greed and vanity punished, while in the audience we’re constantly involved, consulted for our votes, and even contribute our own voices to the organised mayhem on the stage. Little or no ‘fourth wall’ here.
The script is based on their 2014 show, which we saw in St Mary’s Church, but it has been updated for the open air setting of the Astolat Pavilion, and feels if anything more like a mediaeval fairground show, despite including twenty-first century electronic audio media. The telling of ‘The Miller’s Tale’, starring Rosalind Blessed, had us in fits of laughter, not only at Ms Blessed’s wonderfully comic Miller, but by the witty use of sound effects
One of my favourite tales was the company’s musical version of ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ with Matt Pinches narrating as a duck who looked very much like Rod Hull’s Emu, with Chanticleer the rooster, his seven wives and a sly fox, all played by huge puppets steered and voiced by Rosalind Blessed, Will Arundell, Nikita Johal and Sarah Gobran. The hen backing-group to the songs sung by Will and Rosalind was a great invention!
Will Arundell’s lovely singing voice, musical skills and flair for comic timing are great assets in his various roles, whether as a knight, a scoundrel or a rooster. Nikita Johal proved herself very versatile again — from sinuous, sexy princess, to little old woman, magician or rapacious fox, she’s full of delightful energy. Rosalind Blessed is a constant source of fun and humour and Matt Pinches, the only member of the company who was in the original 2014 show, has a fund of invention and comedy. And Sarah Gobran in red catsuit is the fifth — but not the least —star of the show — we’re so used to seeing her in breeches roles, we absolutely loved her satirical portrayal of the worldly, patronising Wife of Bath!
Brought up to date and yet true to the spirit of mediaeval storytelling, this ‘Canterbury Tales’ is a masterpiece of comedy and theatrical invention. Even if you’ve never studied Chaucer, and even if you’re a Chaucer scholar, and whatever your age, you will love this show.
18th July 2023
This review was first published online in Essential Surrey