Review: The Tempest at St Paul’s Church

Amidst the chaos and bustle of London’s Covent Garden, St Paul’s Church feels like a little oasis of calm and tranquility. Affectionately known as The Actors’ Church, St Paul’s has been home to Iris Theatre since 2007, and the company’s tenth summer season gets off to a strong start with their promenade production of The Tempest.

Believed to be Shakespeare’s last solo play, The Tempest is a story about love, magic and redemption on a deserted island, where exiled duke Prospero and his faithful spirit Ariel plot revenge on his enemies after they’re washed ashore in a shipwreck. Meanwhile, Prospero’s slave Caliban has run off with some drunkards, and his daughter Miranda’s fallen in love with the third man she’s ever seen in her life – who conveniently happens to be the king’s lost son Ferdinand.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The first thing to say about Daniel Winder’s production is that it’s visually gorgeous. Mike Leopold’s nature-inspired set looks perfectly at home within the beautiful garden setting, Anna Sances’ costumes are full of rich, vibrant colour, and as the daylight fades, Benjamin Polya’s lighting design brings the play to an atmospheric conclusion. Throw in a clever sleight of hand magic scene, a singing spirit and a handsome prince, and you’ve pretty much got a fairy tale come to life.

Jamie Newall leads the cast of seven as a quietly authoritative Prospero; it’s a sympathetic interpretation of the character, whose actions seem motivated more by a sad weariness than by rage or tyranny. Linford Johnson and Joanne Thomson make a sweet and charmingly awkward couple as Ferdinand and Miranda, and Paul Brendan and Reginald Edwards offer great entertainment as the drunkards Trinculo and Stephano, who tempt Prince Plockey’s Caliban with booze and inadvertently find themselves talked into an ill-fated attempt to murder Prospero. The star of the show, however, is Charlotte Christensen as Ariel – a quirky, omnipresent figure, watching both characters and audience with a bird-like curiosity that’s both endearing and ever so slightly sinister.

Photo credit: Nick Rutter

The promenade aspect of the production, which takes us to three different locations within the gardens and briefly inside the church, works as well as can be expected. Waiting for the entire audience to move from one location to another (particularly when the paths are narrow and require us to travel single file) inevitably breaks up the action, but the actors work hard to keep the atmosphere alive in between scenes, and we’re always encouraged to feel like we’re part of the action. While I wouldn’t quite describe it as an immersive production, this also isn’t a show you just sit back and watch – so be prepared to potentially get a little bit involved…

I’d recommend The Tempest to anyone looking for a traditional Shakespearean production with a bit of a twist. While it may not bring us any radical new interpretations of the text, it does make for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, taking full advantage of a lovely setting to offer a welcome retreat from the madness of the city.

The Tempest is at St Paul’s Church until 28th July.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it…

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