Peer Gynt is a refreshing take on a theatrical classic

A physically energetic performanceBenjamin Nicholson

Edvard Grieg – eat your heart out. production of Peer Gynt directed by Tom Shortland and Dylan Evans which is running at the Corpus Playroom until Saturday distinguishes itself as a startlingly original production in its jazz reworking of Grieg’s incidental music to accompany an abridged script. It sounds like a gimmick, but it pays off marvelously, to the point where the music was the greatest strength of the production, elevating its zany staging, fantastical plot and acting into an entertaining piece of theatre.

Peer Gynt is notoriously ‘unstageable’ – Ibsen’s original 1867 play in five acts is extraordinarily long and would test the patience of even the most tolerant audience. Tom Chandler’s courageous adaptation of the play brings the run time down to about two hours and thus propels the plot forward with greater speed. This necessary speed is occasionally the cause of some dramatic whiplash, but this is not entirely out of step with the play’s surreal, fantastical feel as a whole. Josh Seal acquits himself well in the role of titular role around whom the hurtling chaos of the play seems to revolve. Temitope Idowu (in various roles) shines in a few quieter solo musical numbers delivered which contrast well with the otherwise frenetic energy of the production. Along with Charmaine Au-Yeung (various roles), a physically energetic performance is given; they both dance, drown and play mountain trolls over the course of the play. Each character is given a full commitment of effort, though the large amount of multi-rolling by Au-Yeung and Idowu sometimes makes the exact plot details difficult to follow, as the cast have little room to manoeuvre in switching quickly between a large of cast of characters.

“the integration of the music into the play felt natural and well thought through”

The band – Gabriel Margolis on the keyboard, Liz Blackwell on bass guitar and Lucy Molnar on drums – were as much the stars of the show as the actors. Grinning infectiously, they played a toe-tappingly good jazz reimaging of Grieg’s music (written for the original play at the request of Ibsen himself) with flair and great style; Margolis, in particular, is wonderfully charismatic in his performance of it. Not putting a note wrong, the limited instrumental ensemble was proficiently used to great effect. Additionally, the integration of the music into the play felt natural and well thought through. It is not uncommon for shows to include some kind of music as a gimmick without fully fitting it into the production, resulting in the music appearing somewhat forced and underrehearsed in the context of a play. The music in Peer Gynt, however, he felt absolutely vital to the production; it frames and elaborates on the drama of the play – one cannot imagine this production without it.

“an energetically fun piece of theater without sacrificing the essential pathos which Ibsen’s play contains”

The eccentric staging of this production was dizzying and amusing in equal measure. While the music from the band tied the production together, it was the pacey and at times forthrightly slapstick staging of the play that earned hearty laughter from the audience – one memorable moment involved Peer Gynt and his new troll bride-to-be riding a’ matrimony pig’. The directors have made impressive use of a very sparse set, leaning into the comedy of it which, in turn, served to make the poignant end of the play all the more affecting.

Peer Gynt has moments of inspired direction, and the script is a refreshing take on a theatrical classic but what makes this production is the enthrallingly good music and the energy the band bring to the stage. This energy elevates the performances and fuels the atmosphere; creating an energetically fun piece of theater without sacrificing the essential pathos which Ibsen’s play contains. For newcomers and old fans of Ibsen alike, this unique Peer Gynt will, I’m sure, prove to be a fun and touching experience.

Peer Gynt is on at the Corpus Playroom at 19.00 until 12th March

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