Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Hay Fever at Boughton Monchelsea

To paraphrase a famous proverb, two plays are better than one.

Which is why I found myself yesterday settling down for a double bill from Changeling Theatre, at Boughton Monchelsea Place. Having seen Changeling before (most recently doing Romeo and Juliet last summer), we were reasonably confident that we were in for a good time – and we weren’t disappointed. Which was probably just as well, or it could have been a very long day.

The Changeling experience begins the moment you arrive, as the cast wander among the audience, already in costume and character, selling programmes and helping themselves to your picnic. We also got a brief plot summary of the day’s first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Proteus loves Julia, Valentine loves Silvia, but then Proteus falls for Silvia too and all hell breaks loose. Oh, and there’s a bit with a dog, which – as we all know – is what the people want.

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Changeling Theatre
Ben Wiggins & Jessica Rose Boyd
Photo credit: Changeling Theatre

As always, every member of the cast gives it 110%, whether their role’s big or small. It’s always easier as an audience member to relax and enjoy the show if it looks like the actors are enjoying themselves, and this cast seem to be having the time of their lives, as they pull random audience members on to the stage and occasionally go off script altogether. Jessica Rose Boyd, who was a hysterical (in both senses of the word) Juliet last summer, is particularly fun to watch; her enthusiasm and energy are totally infectious. I loved Emma Rose Lowther’s cloak-swishing turn as Eglamore, too – it may be a small role, but she definitely knows how to make the most of it. And the excellent and hilarious Peter Dukes pretty much steals the show in the dual role of Launce and Thurio (and not only because he’s the one with the dog – although that might account for some of the cheers every time he appears on stage).

The play itself – believed to be Shakespeare’s first comedy – is sometimes a bit questionable; the treatment of women is particularly deplorable (dumped, tricked, given away etc). But just as we seem to be heading towards an utterly ridiculous conclusion, director Rob Forknall throws in a brilliant twist that proves girl power is alive and well, and ends the production on a high.

Changeling Theatre
Photo credit: Changeling Theatre

Next up was Noël Coward’s comedy of manners, Hay Fever, which, even by Changeling standards, is utterly bonkers. It’s the 1960s, and each member of the ‘bohemian’ Bliss family has invited a guest to their country house in Berkshire for the weekend, without telling the others. As the guests begin to arrive, the family try to be on their best behaviour… and fail spectacularly. Faced with incomprehensible games, family squabbles and unwanted declarations of love, the guests grow increasingly uncomfortable. It’s over the top, ridiculous, hammier than a bacon sandwich – and I loved it.

Felicity Sparks flings herself head-first (literally – the throw cushions adorning Clare Southern’s set get plenty of use) into her role as Judith: part-time mother, one-time movie star and full-time drama queen. A character who could have been incredibly annoying becomes, in her hands, both hilarious and oddly loveable, even as you want to shake her and tell her to pull herself together. David Whitney is great as Judith’s long-suffering husband, David, and Ben Wiggins and Jessica Rose Boyd are a perfect double act as her spoilt children, Simon and Sorel. To be honest, I could quite happily spend an evening just watching the two of them bicker back and forth.

Hay Fever, Changeling Theatre
Felicity Sparks
Photo credit: Changeling Theatre

Finally, neither production would be complete without the music, composed by Tom Barnes and played by the cast on a variety of instruments, from the fan organ and bassoon to the tambourine and triangle – with a bit of Andrew Lloyd Webber thrown in for good measure. Particular highlights include original ballad, ‘Who is Silvia’ (lyrics by Shakespeare), from Two Gents, and Judith’s spectacularly awful rendition of ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ in Hay Fever.

Sadly, the 2015 Changeling season finished tonight with a final performance at Boughton Monchelsea, but I’ll be booking my tickets to see what they have in store for us next year. One thing’s for sure: it’ll be different to anything we’ve seen before – and that’s why we love them.