Love’s Labour’s Lost was performed by the Royal Academy of Music’s Musical Theatre Company at Hackney Empire, London. This review refers to the cast at the Saturday evening performance (Cast A).
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The lofty heights of Shakespearian adaptation have famously permeated the Broadway canon to its very heart. Yet Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, first performed in 2013, takes inspiration not from the most celebrated musical theatre reimaginings such as Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story, but instead from John Guare and Galt MacDermot’s lesser known Two Gentlemen of Verona of 1971.
Temporarily relocated to Hackney Empire during the rebuild of its in-house theatre in Marylebone, the Royal Academy of Music’s Musical Theatre Company (here superbly directed by Bruce Guthrie) undertook an outstanding task in bringing to the stage the UK premiere of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which transposes the play’s original medieval Franco-Spanish setting to a modern Ivy League college reunion held at a lavish hotel.
For the cast of postgraduate students to have switched so seamlessly between the original Elizabethan dialogue and contemporary musical idioms, from avant-garde modernism to Kraftwerk-style electronica, already demonstrated an impressive versatility – particularly given that such transitions often take place in the blink of an eye, with Timbers’ streamlined Shakespearian verse woven into the fabric of Friedman’s pop-rock songs as voiceovers.
But that was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The breathtaking breadth of talent showcased during this production was perhaps best exemplified in ‘Dumaine’s Poem’, in which Zheng Xi Yong as Dumaine executed some impressively stratospheric singing as a counterpoint to Marine André’s balletic contemporary dance (while simultaneously playing the recorder) as Maria, the object of his affections – whereupon Yong sat at a conveniently placed piano and continued to accompany himself in song.
Such was the superlative quality of the production, the esteemed reputation of the company, and the ensemble nature of the show, that it was a genuine challenge to single out individuals for praise.
Luke Ward-Walton as Berowne, Merryl Ansah (Rosaline) and Cecily Redman (Katherine) as attendants to the Princess, Aaron Barriscale as campus cop Dull, Oliver Williams as hotel concierge Costard – all delivered admirable performances.
Benjamin Froehlich and Jessica Aubrey complemented one another perfectly as the King and the Princess, respectively: each owned the stage as leader of their associated social circles.
Pontus Henkel as Boyet ably narrated the show’s central episode, in which the King’s four-strong fraternity, having forsaken girls to devote themselves to study, find their feelings for the Princess and her female companions – coincidentally former college flames – being unexpectedly rekindled.
Peter Noden (Longaville) executed a dazzling vaudevillian song-and-dance routine, demonstrating a remarkable command of tap, courtesy of Steve Kirkham’s letter-perfect choreography.
Another standout was Laura Bird as the maid Jaquenetta, one of several roles bolstered from Shakespeare’s original, who offered much beautifully heartfelt singing.
Beth Clarence and Muirgen O’Mahony provided some delightful comic relief in supporting roles as the scholars Holofernes and Nathaniel (the gender of these characters having been changed from Shakespeare’s original).
But the remarkable actor who came closest to stealing the show was surely the infinitely entertaining Johan Munir as flamboyant Spanish exchange student Don Armado, augmented by an encapsulating performance by Jamie Chidzey as ailurophilic sidekick Moth.
The decision to present Love’s Labour’s Lost without interval was a bold move. Not only did the show itself run for nearly 1 hour 45 minutes, but it was preceded by an excellent open mic-style cabaret featuring members of the chorus (who themselves traded places with the principals for alternating performances) covering songs ranging from Queen to the Backstreet Boys, generously ending just five minutes before curtain up.
Notwithstanding the occasional antiquated reference to kings and queens and its poignant concluding note, Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost comprises such stuff as musical theatre is made on – coming of age, pledging to give up women and promptly falling in love, misdelivered messages, a play within a play.
The Royal Academy of Music truly gave Timbers and Friedman’s creative adaptation the fitting maiden voyage in the Bard’s home country that it richly deserved.