New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 7 May, 2003

This is a show that needs to engage its audience fast and firmly, because many have their doubts about the idea of a rap version of The Comedy Of Errors. Then again, I counted myself among the sceptics on its British première in Edinburgh last summer, and by the end I was on my feet for this fast, funny, sharp, clever phenomenon. There's some extra material now to boost the running time to just over two hours including interval, and the American cast have to work a little harder to make sure the "fourth wall" in the New Ambassadors Theatre stays demolished, but their energy and the exuberance of their preferred hip-hop flavas see to that.

Shakespeare's Plautine tale of two sets of identical twins, separated in infancy and now causing confusion for one another in the course of a single day, is here told by a mere four performers, plus a DJ at one side of the stage. This makes for a number of gags about quick costume changes and cast doubling; during the happy ending, for instance, the cast member known as "ranney" [sic] has to play Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife Adriana simultaneously. Even hip-hop itself spawns some self-referential funnies: when Antipholus returns to his house and remarks, "The door seems to be locked; I'll give it a beat", it's DJ Kevin Shand who starts his beat box pulsating to provide the required tattoo.

The script began as a theatre project at New York University before becoming an off-Broadway hit, and there's a fiendishly playful intelligence at work. The rhymes and rhythms are bang on the nose, a world away from theatrical faux-rap but still sometimes attaining an Ira Gershwin standard of cheekiness; Shand's grooves are easy and fluid, veering towards late-1980s "Daisy Age" hip-hop; and amidst all this, virtually every detail of Shakespeare's plot remains intact, and occasionally more comprehensible than the original. Chris Edwards in particular shines as lovable but dumb Luciana and a psychopathic horse-fetishist cop, but the show demands 100% from all concerned, and gets it. Big up to the West End massive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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