Warehouse Theatre, Croydon
Opened 13 December, 1994

The Warehouse Theatre's writer in residence Roy Smiles is not a man to shy away from complex narratives built on wildly implausible premises, be they the re-emergence of drowned Italian banker Roberto Calvi or the Second Coming on a Derry housing estate. His plays don't always succeed, but with The Court Jester one wills him to pull off a conceit of plotting which weaves together Plantagenet dynastic politics, the original poll tax and Peasants' Revolt, a healthy slice of physical comedy and a few musical numbers into the bargain. By and large, he does so.

When Edgar Horsewarren sets out to seek his fortune in the family trade of jestering ("You could have been a village idiot!" laments his ambitious mother), he finds a court in which King Edward III is a dotard given to knighting otters, his nominated heir Richard of Bordeaux pretending Prince Hal-like to be an ineffectual youth and Richard's uncle John of Gaunt plotting pantomimically to seize the throne for himself in between executing unfunny jesters.

Inevitably, the first act contains a good twenty minutes of the "As you know, your father, the King..." kind of exposition. Facial expressions, too, suddenly acquire a steely resolve when a chunk of radical social dialectic gallops over the horizon. Once the territory has been mapped out, however, the company can get on with the business in hand: unrepentant comedy in the supper-theatre setting to which the Warehouse has been converted for this production.

As Edgar, Miltos Yerolemou possesses a mighty gift for extreme and lunatic physicality, either when being mauled by the royal strumpet Alice Peres (Jessica Martin) or I kid you not juggling rats. Manacled to a portcullis at the end of Act One, Edgar and demagogue priest John Ball begin a suspiciously dodgy "there's always tomorrow" ditty which grows steadily more absurd, culminating in some fine synchronised writhing. (Martin's numbers, in contrast, have a faint air of contractual obligation about them.) The Court Jester even finds space for a gratuitous interlude between Chaucer and Boccaccio and mirabile dictu a nod to the "pellet with the poison" routine from the Danny Kaye movie of the same name ("The goblet with the knoblet", indeed!)

Artistic director Ted Craig's policy of taking a sidestep from the mainstream for his Christmas fare isn't always triumphant, but The Court Jester is a pleasantly gigglesome Yuletide offering and more.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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