A play should make you feel, to bastardise a phrase from the script of The Book of Will, and if that’s the parameters by which a play is judged, then this performance by Norwich Players Theatre Group (NPTG) hits the mark spectacularly.
From the start, there was a real sense of warmth as you are invited into the world of The King’s Men and their families as they lament the passing of their glory days on stage, and the awful quarto versions of Shakespeare’s work being performed by dreadful companies.
I won’t give the full story away, but it’s no secret that it centres around John Heminges and Henry Condell’s efforts to print a folio of Shakespeare’s works. But the play also explores some of the characters' relationships with each other, as well as with Shakespeare’s plays and what they mean to them. It manages to be equal parts poignant, sad, funny, and inspiring, and all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable watch.
While there was three obvious leads in Heminges (James Thompson), Condell (Jamie Willimott), and Heminges’ daughter, Alice (Lola Matthews), who all gave fantastic performances, this was very much an ensemble effort, with a few people doubling up and not a weak link among them.
The softly-spoken but commanding James offered us a performance full of warmth, wry humour, and fragility. Jamie’s performance on the other hand was one of boundless enthusiasm and humour, but he turned a character that could have been portrayed merely as a figure of fun into something far more sensitive. Lola was a real driving force in the show, showing a versatility to handle sensitive moments with authenticity, and displaying a wonderful comedic ability with her sassy delivery, particularly when fending off the advances of Ben Jonson. It was a wonderful performance, and no mean feat to hold her own amongst some far bigger, more bombastic characters.
Speaking of Ben Jonson, and a special mention to the wonderful David Newham, who played him beautifully, pretty much stealing every scene he featured in as Shakespeare’s pompous drunkard of a rival.
It wasn’t just about the quality of the acting though. The direction was superb, turning what was clearly a great script into a crisp, slick, stylised performance. The story moved at a decent pace and kept us interested even during scene changes. The set was deceptively simple, but really effective, and the costumes as wonderful as you’d expect from the Maddermarket’s costume department.
The show continues until the 26th November, and I would urge you to check it out. Aside from the all-round excellent performances, this is also the first time the show has been performed in the UK, so catch it while you can. Visit maddermarket.co.uk for tickets.