With over twenty stories, not including the General Prologue, it would seem nigh-on impossible to cram nearly all of the Canterbury Tales into a mere two hours. Yet with breathtaking scope, dazzling virtuosity and some serious multi-tasking, that is exactly what The Pantaloons have done with their production of Chaucer’s mighty epic.
Image (c) The Pantaloons
Playing last night to a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at Mount Ephraim Gardens, the company display a chameleon-like quality, with a mere six players each changing character in the blink of an eye to bring all the characters in the Tales alive. With such a small company, there’s no respite either; when not acting, then they’re usually providing some musical accompaniment to the action – guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, melodica, recorder, accordion, including quotes from Mission: Impossible, all make an appearance, and all the cast sing, bursting out into with arias, duets and even barbershop when you least expect it.
Before the play begins, the cast provide musical entertainment or wander amongst the audience in character to welcome them, harangue late-comers, or peddle their medieval wares of dubious quality (not, of course, including the programmes!).
There’s a real sense, too, of warmth emanating from the players towards the audience, which is reciprocated in equal measure. The players have fun with the audience, involving them – there’s a moment or two of audience participation, including turning them into an Angry Mob complete with fist-waving as well. The play is peppered with the occasional nod to contemporary culture too, in knowingly anachronistic asides which add to the fun.
What impresses the most, however, is the sheer variety with which the Tales are realised. There’s riotous action, but there’s also puppetry, limericks, rap, improvised comedy, and a tale-in-thirty-seconds as well; the puppet-show realisation is narrated whilst faceless puppets act out the tale, and is in places equally funny and beautifully moving. The Miller’s Tale, with its famous poker-and-posterior moment, is a lively romp; the Reeve’s Tale, with its nocturnal mistaken bed-hopping, brings the bedroom-farce alive with terrific humour; in contrast, the Second Nun’s Tale becomes a lightning-quick opera packed with famous musical references including the ‘Flower Duet’ from Lakme and more, delivered with real musicality.
The play works for both adults and children alike, with Chaucer’s famous vulgarity handled with delightful aplomb. Ranging from farce to ribald humour, romance and slapstick, the rich variety of Chaucer’s social commentary as he pokes fun at social class, mocks religion, greed and lust, is all presented in a vibrant, dynamic production that keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek throughout.
It’s a very physical production, with the hard-working players climbing in and out of the window, dashing around the stage, mock-brawls, moving in and out of the audience, and generally seeming to fill three times as much space as the set would seem to allow.
The play finishes with improvised comedy, as the Squire finally gets to tell his Tale by taking ideas from the audience and making up a tale on the spot, in song, accompanying himself on the guitar whilst the rest of the players act out his impromptu tale.
The company tours extensively throughout the year – check out their diary on-line and don’t miss the opportunity to see them if they turn up at a venue near you: you won’t be disappointed. Their tale is done: God save all the rout!