It was a relief when the Shakespeare In The Garden troupe from the Open Bar theatre company got the go ahead to tour England’s pub gardens as long as social distancing measures were in place. I bought my tickets immediately as this is something which needs supporting, no matter if I would feel comfortable going on that evening or not. Having seen them last year in London (reviewing for LondonPubTheatres.com) I knew I would be supporting a superb theatre company.
Tonight is one of the last tour dates and we are in Surrey’s Caterham-on-the-hill, over an hour’s walk from where I live now, close enough to not have to use public transport to get to the venue. Tables of two and four are arranged, not too close to each other and even during the performance you can order drinks delivered to your table straight away or burgers and sausages from the barbecue. Table service is indeed something you do not expect in a Fuller’s car park on a Saturday night and paying through a website you have accessed via your phone is new for many. Not every retiree is a technology enthusiastic silver surfer or knows what a QR code is and how to use it but the staff makes sure that no one goes thirsty at any time.
Five upright tent pods line up on the back of the stage space, each one big enough to put a chair in and to get changed, five tiny backstage areas fully exposed but yet separating the actors and crowned by a construction of metal poles to climb on. I recognize most faces from last year and even though The Tempest, (probably) written by Shakespeare in 1610, is not a comedy I am right to think that this will be a very funny evening. Expect Hamilton–style monologues, carefully distanced high-fives, and so much on-stage hand-sanitizing that I wonder how much they hoarded for these weeks of touring. At some point the excitement for the upcoming Batman film is mentioned followed by the non-script explanation that the original text is too racist to be staged nowadays – having not read The Tempest myself, Margaret Atwell’s Hagseed comes into my mind, in which a prison book club reads this later masterpiece of the bard and is only allowed to use swear words in class actually used in the play. And then I remember the only other time I have seen The Tempest staged, half puppetry, half one-man-show when the only good thing about the evening was discovering Wilton’s in the east end.
This here is so much better: If there has ever been the need identified for a skinny women’s blouse with chest hair print, it is tonight when five actors play all 20plus roles among them, often several each in a single scene. Ariel, the supernatural spirit, hovers in her catsuit and with Kate Bush videoclip face painting on ropes around the scenes, observed by actual bats skipping from hedge to hedge, moths throw their shadows through the limelight and the stars sparkle above us: Autumn is on its way but this is a celebration of summer!
It turns cold later on so I put my jacket over my hoodie and order a cup of tea through my phone, served in an unexpectedly stylish gin paper cup, my first and hopefully only single use cup this year – just an hour ago I had my first aperol spritz this year. So many highlights in a single evening! No audience member is picked to come on stage and be dressed up nor must fear their drink being stolen and turned into a prop, no live Twitter competition takes place and programmes are free to download.
***** out of 5 stars
Tickets were £18 each plus fees. Advance booking is required.
Shakespeare in the Garden hopefully returns to England’s pub gardens next summer.