Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Opened 24 October, 2001

I have remarked before on the disease of arts journalists called the "Edinburgh bends", whereby every August in Scotland's capital, normally sane critics begin enthusing about bizarreries such as a Hungarian woman in an airtight perspex tank or an all-male musical version of Three Sisters (both genuine examples). But sometimes what we ought to be decrying is the flip side of this syndrome the "London straights", as it were, when even shows in the fringiest of venues may be written off as too flimsy in one way or another.

Scarlet Theatre's Love And Other Fairy Tales, for instance, has Edinburgh Fringe production constraints stamped all over it (it played there at the Pleasance in August): it lasts a mere 70 minutes, is designed so that the entire stage can be set or struck in less than ten, and even takes the mickey out of its own limitations, as the cast of six spend most of the time cantering around the stage on comical pretend horses. In such brute terms, it feels slight in the context of the modest but not quite penurious resources of Southwark Playhouse.

The weight is in the writing, in the skill with which Nick Revell has adapted Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale and in the delight with which he, directors Gráinne Byrne and Katarzyna Deszcz and the cast make theatre which both amuses and stimulates.

There are the clever Chaucerian references: we begin with Chaucer's own Tale of Sir Topas being shouted down by the other Canterbury pilgrims (pruned to five in number), and the effeminate Pardoner is in fact played by a woman, the chucklesome Angela Clerkin. But the meat of the matter is the interaction between the author and his character: mildly disconcerted when she begins to talk back to him, he becomes increasingly fascinated with the tale of her own life, and comes to take on the role of her fifth husband in the biographical scenes which alternate with segments of the Tale proper, acted out by the pilgrims. In its way, Chaucer's behaviour mirrors that of the knight in the Wife's story, finding himself most truly by submitting his will to that of the woman he is involved with; the play, like the Tale itself, has a bittersweet surface but a fervently romantic core.

Cindy Oswin makes an engaging Dame Alison, assured where it matters most; Jane Guernier's Prioress keeps betraying her underlying worldliness, and Colin Michael Carmichael enjoys his prancing as the Squire. Any theatregoer who feels short-changed by lack of playing time or of bells-and-whistles production values should be exhorted to never mind the width - feel the quality.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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