For someone who spends a lot of time sitting on stationary trains (and almost missed the start of this show because of a public transport delay), the premise of Tower Theatre’s new production of The Canterbury Tales is all too familiar. A group of passengers stranded on a train to Canterbury West – among them a soldier (Toñi Madja), a musician (Paul Willcocks), a librarian (Sarah Bower), a handywoman (Emily Carmichael) and a lawyer (Alistair Maydon) – are encouraged by the train guard (Alexa Wall) to turn to storytelling to pass the time, with each of them competing for the audience’s winning vote at the end of the evening.
Directed by Angharad Ormond, the resulting collection of tales is a slightly disjointed but wholly entertaining evening, alternating between comedy and tragedy, and with no shortage of topical commentary; though the tales are all based on stories written centuries ago, it doesn’t take too much of a twist to bring some of them bang up to date. Like Constance, the central character in the lawyer’s story, who’s forced to flee her home and later becomes the sole survivor of a slaughter at the hands of religious extremists; Griselda (Arabella Hornby), of the librarian’s tale, who’s trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage; or Alice (Deborah Ley), better known as the Wife of Bath, who’s been married five times but has never managed to achieve the one thing she really wants – gender equality. The production makes no secret of its political orientation in these moments, with cast members reciting key facts and headlines relating to the refugee crisis, and Alice referencing recent news from Alabama in her plea for women’s rights.
Unsurprisingly, this means that there are points in the production where things get very dark indeed, but luckily there’s also plenty of humour – much of it quite cheeky – to lighten the mood. Both the bookie (Ryan Williams) and the soldier entertain their audience with stories about two men chasing the same woman, set centuries apart but both with predictably disastrous results. The priest (Paul Graves), meanwhile, brings the evening to a cheery musical conclusion with his cautionary tale about the proud rooster Chauntecleer, who learns the dangers of falling for flattery.
Although each story only has one narrator, the production is a great example of ensemble performance, incorporating physical theatre, sign language and clowning at various points. Music also plays an important part in the show, whether it’s a cappella 60s hits, haunting folk melodies or tongue-in-cheek opera, and this adds an extra dimension to an already lively production, with strong vocals and harmonies from the whole cast and musical accompaniment provided by the multi-talented Paul Willcocks.
Parts of the show have a slightly improvised feel, and with more characters than stories I did leave wondering if a different combination of tales might be told each night – if so, this would be another clever twist (and would also keep the cast on their toes). Whether or not that’s true, though, this new take on The Canterbury Tales brings Chaucer well and truly into the 21st century, and is certainly a lot more accessible than the dry text most of us will remember studying at school. It’s great fun, slightly bonkers and well worth a visit.
The Canterbury Tales is at Tower Theatre until 20th July.