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Joe Hill-Gibbins' The Changeling - upstaged by jelly and trifle

G_1_jpg_510x340_crop_upscale_q85I like modern takes on old plays or innovative and different staging. It can throw a new perspective on familiar texts or access to historic pieces you don't always get in traditional staging. What I don't like is when a production feels like it is different for the sake of it or that someone has come up with good idea and then milked it to the point of ridiculousness.

The Changeling is a play I studied at Uni or at least the underlined quotes and notes in the margin of my dog-eared copy of five Middleton plays imply I studied it but none of the story or quotes came flooding back as I watched last night so I was essentially seeing it as new.

It's good Jacobean fare in that there is love, lust, violence and murder. Joanna (Jessica Raine) is lusted after by De Flores (Daniel Cerqueira) her father's ugly servant whom she abhors. Joanna is set to marry Alonzo (Duncan Wisbey) but she's not keen on him either and would rather marry Alsemero (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith).

In desperation, as her wedding day approaches, she asks De Flores to help her get Alonzo out of the way and of course once the deed is done he isn't going to accept cold hard cash for his troubles.

Performed in the Young Vic's smaller Maria theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbon's action takes place with the audience sat around four sides. Those seated downstairs are mainly in little boxed off galleries although there are three wheelchairs, almost in the thick of the action, for those feeling brave*. Pretty much all of the props and bits of furniture are in the space already and either quickly wheeled into place or with the action moving to the furniture.

There are some nicely clever staging techniques mainly involving people in cabinets and large boxes but I won't spoil it too much. The wedding sequence was a nice little touch providing a neat musical interlude with all the guest and bride and groom dancing in sequence to Beyonce's Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).

However the performance space did get a little jumbled at times and there is almost constant low background noise which worked at times (wedding party hubbub) but also got a bit annoying. To start with I thought it was coming from the pub next door to the theatre. 

Then there was the jelly and trifles which were all laid out on a table with a punch like looking drink in a bowl. The punch was used as a murder weapon (think about it) and then the 'newly weds' smeared each other jelly and trifle adding in some chocolate sauce for good measure. OK so it was all a metaphor for the tainted marriage bed but there is only so much jelly smearing you can take before you start thinking 'Ok got that now move on. Move on. No really move on now'.

The remaining jelly and trifle then got flung around in the final confrontation scene for reasons I'm still trying to work out. If it was meant to be a weapon physically and metaphorically then why was Alonzo's brother at times brandishing a sword? There was also some spitting wine onto 'dead' characters. Rather a lot of spitting of wine which reminded me of Winterlong where food was inexplicably spat out and trod into the stage for no real reason. 

Coming back to my opening lines I suppose what I'm saying is it sometime felt unnecessary, self-consciously different in fact. When jelly smearing and trifle flinging is the overriding memory of a play then you have to wonder whether it was effective staging.

For fear of sounding like a middle-aged, conservative old crone this production of The Changeling made me want to see a slightly more conventional version as the story felt overshadowed. Perhaps it works better if you are more familiar with the text.

I'm going to give it three stars as the acting was good particularly when you have some younger audience members laughing hysterically in completely the wrong places.

*Be warned the ushers unnecessarily lecture everyone sat downstairs about not being able to take food or drink in and you might get wet or engulfed in stage smoke. The former was unnecessary as you are physically separated from the acting space unless you are in the wheelchairs and therefore I'm not sure what they were worried about. And the latter didn't seem to be a problem for anyone sat on any side - or maybe it was a restrained performance.

The Changeling runs at the Young Vic theatre until February 25 and I saw a preview performance.


Alex Bennett who plays Jasperino, I last saw in Much Ado About Nothing with Adam James who was in The Pride with Mr W