On the surface the Brixton East theatre may not look much like a place of wonders, with its shabby walls and concrete floors, but through the sheer imagination of Matthew McPherson’s intimate yet lively production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this unassuming theatre tucked away on Barrington Road is transformed into a place of delightful dreams.
The play begins in a rudimentary fashion befitting its modest venue, as a live band plays folksy tunes from a pallet stage while the cast mingles among the crowd. It feels almost as if the audience has merely stumbled upon a dress rehearsal rather than a fully-fledged performance. But in keeping with a production that revels in keeping its spectators guessing, expectations are swiftly flipped on their heads as a band of fairy children lures the audience upstairs to a cosy loft that has been transformed into a magical forest. Complete with swinging ropes and incandescent fairy lights, it’s looks like the treehouse of every 10-year-old’s dreams. In fact, McPherson makes excellent use of the limited space throughout, creating a carnival atmosphere through the use of live music and setting the action in amongst the crowd.
This stripped back approach allows the performers to take centre stage and fully express themselves. Louise Williams’ fairy queen Titania has real depth – enchanting and ethereal but with melancholic undertones – while her fairy servants have the perfect air of feral whimsy. Amy Ambrose’s Helena is also a delight, coming over as a cross between Miranda Hart and Rebel Wilson – all fumbling limbs but with a dose of filthy humour as she lusts after Razak Osman’s Demetrius. But by far the biggest laughs come via Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals – the artisan performers who are rehearsing the entirely inappropriate tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta. This play within a play is blissfully funny and performed with distinction, gusto and real craft. Nathan Wright’s excellent Bottom dies with all the ridiculous flourish of an amateur actor enjoying his moment in the limelight.
The performance is not entirely faultless, of course. The are a few too many wardrobe malfunctions, at times the dialogue sounds garbled and hurried, and the ending feels abrupt and rushed. Yet this is still a remarkable production, brimming with intimacy and spectacle, and showcasing the wonders that can be achieved with a small budget and a very big imagination.