A diamante chandelier hangs above a gaudy orange carpet, and a neon sign above the door welcomes the audience to ‘Volpone’s’. The set of Volpone is an assault on the senses – but it’s a real pleasure to be there. The dulcet tones of Huw Braithwaite complement the casual ambience, and a live band are fully incorporated into the action. Costumed in double-denim, they speak to the characters like a chorus, but watch and laugh along with the audience. This adds beautifully to the cabaret feel of the piece, making Ben Jonson’s Jacobean comedy immediately current and accessible.
The strength of the cast must be commended, which contains no weak links. Kate Weir is wonderful in the title role, and an extremely commanding and entertaining presence on stage. In the role of her cunning servant Mosca, Joe Peden flits effortlessly between charming naturalism and intense melodrama, and it’s reassuring to have such a strong pair to guide us through the complex plot. The multi-roling Rory Grant and Finlay Stroud provide another fantastic comic duo, channeling a range of accents and personas, and consistently surprising the audience. Physicality is excellent across the board, as is comic timing. Daisy Hayes’ dedication to Corbaccio is infectious, and each of her character’s actions become funnier as the play progresses.
The blocking and lighting are dynamic and innovative, making use of the huge Keble O’Reilly space without obstructing the views of the audience, who sit on opposite sides of the traverse stage. The costumes (Lily Goldblatt and Ben Walker) are great fun, fitting the characters and the atmosphere perfectly, and some more ridiculous disguises are realised innovatively.
Admittedly, there were a few moments last night where the pace started to slow, and a couple of actors needed to project a little more. On the whole, however, the handling of the first-night stumbles was testament to the skill of the cast, who were comfortable improvising and clearly enjoyed the relaxed nature of the performance. There are a couple of extremely uncomfortable moments in the plot, and these are directed with care by Sam Luker Brown. The unexpectedly brutal moments jar with the generally humorous tone, but the decision not to skirt over them is commendable: this production shows that comedy too can be challenging and powerful when done well. And this one certainly is.