The Public Acts programme produces another winner in As You Like It at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, community theatre at its absolute best
“All the world’s a stage
And everybody’s in the show
Nobody’s a pro”
I knew it would take something special to tempt me out of my summer hiatus and given that last year’s Pericles ended up being my show of the year, odds were that this year’s Public Acts production would be the one. And sure enough, Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery’s adaptation of As You Like It at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch was another truly joyous event, a real celebration of community theatre and all its glorious power to involve, instruct and inspire.
And with a company that totals over 100 people, it is not hard to see why. Just the mere fact of seeing that many people on a stage is enough to warm the cockles, particularly when it genuinely embraces diversity in race, ability, age and more. Throw in an ebullient, musical take on Shakespeare’s comedy and a creative team clearly relishing letting their imagination run wild and the result is completely beguiling, emotionally true and really quite affecting – they were tears of happiness honestly!
Compared to Pericles, there was a touch more coherence to Douglas Rintoul’s production – a result of the choice of play as much as anything – the focus on making Arden a blissfully lovely place to be exiled to paying off marvellously in Hayley Grindle’s set and costumes. There was still the opportunity for a touch of randomness as the London School of Lucha Libre collaborated to make the wrestling scene vividly dynamic but under Yshani Perinpanayagam’s sparkling musical direction, the company were most effective all together.
Taub’s music and lyrics worked well too to set the vibrant and contemporary tone. From Duke Frederick’s ever-present jingle to Orlando’s boy-band-esque declaration of love, the score was pleasingly innovative and lyrically, it proved witty (I loved the gentle Rosaline/Rosalind jab, and “you Phoebe me” should be adopted by the RSC) but also genuinely thoughtful. Rosalind’s baring of her soul in ‘When I’m Your Wife’ felt like a moment of real power (“I’ll be jealous of anything private of yours but I’ll bury my own secrets deep”), full of honesty and still entirely true to her character.
The blend of professional actors with the community company paid off well throughout as typified by Ebony Jonelle’s Rosalind and Marjorie Agwang’s Celia and their sweetly played bond. Linford Johnson’s Orlando is most appealing, Vedi Roy’s Touchstone was a drily witty delight and Rohan Reckord as Duke Senior has a voice that would entice you to wherever he was, especially when he’s backed by the CommUnity Gospel Choir.
There’s also something quietly radical about the choices being made here by Rintoul, not just in queering some of the relationships (Audrey becomes Andy, Silvius becomes Silvia) but in the bodies he’s putting them in. Heaven knows white gym-toned studs have had, and continue to have, their moment in the spotlight so it is utterly refreshing – and powerful – to see that trend being well and truly bucked here with LGBT+ representation of all shapes, sizes and colour being taken seriously. (I’d happily watch a Touchstone and Andy spin-off!).
So a production of heart-filling joy and more than the match of anything you would care to deem as ‘professional’. There’s something about being so close to so many people so palpably getting joy from what they’re doing that is impossible to resist and if I could fit this into my diary again, I’d be heading back out to Hornchurch, not least for the ecstatic hands-in-the-air finale which still somehow manages to find another level when they bring out the amazing drummers of Dhol Academy. A deserved success for the Public Acts programme and everyone involved – if only all theatre made me feel like this!
Running time: 95 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Camilla Greenwell
As You Like It is booking at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 27th August
Note: Working with the National Theatre and Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, the Public Acts community partners are Bromley by Bow Centre, Body & Soul, Coram, DABD, Havering Asian Social Welfare Association (HASWA), Open Age, Thames Reach, Queen’s Community Group and The Faith & Belief Forum.