REVIEW: The Canterbury Tales at Playbox Theatre

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Chaucer’s motley crew of Pilgrims reimagined for the 21st century in Playbox Theatre’s Canterbury Tales.

Barmy Britain brilliantly done

Steve Sutherland reviews The Canterbury Tales, Dream Factory, Playbox Theatre, Warwick, until Saturday, 7th July

There’s a handsome youth, lanky and wan, dressed in a crimson tunic, stood in the bullseye of a giant Mod target, eating crisps. All around is mayhem which will soon involve office chairs and cups of tea, all ill-lit by laptop, but the youth doesn’t notice, or maybe he does and just doesn’t care.

In a minute or two he will finish his crisps, lick the salt from his fingers, litter lob the packet onto the floor and saunter off, a trailing hand wafting a desultory farewell.

Incidentally, the youth, whose real name is Will Parsons, has also been a fruity French amorist with an ear for Adam Ant, and Death, dancing like a loon in a cloak and silver mask, but that needn’t bother us right here right now.

It’s the crisps scene that haunts, in all its inscrutable poise and beauty. Noel Fielding said it once and I’ll say it again: what can it mean, single baked bean?

Here we go again. Another marvelous Playbox production full of, “What is life? Life is…what? Do we? Don’t we? What’s it all for?” The last time some of us had our brains thus boggled so dramatically was about a year ago when Playbox presented Toby Quash’s Gutterhead. And 12 months on, he’s back, up to his old tricks, bamboozling us once more, quite, quite brilliantly.

His adaption of Canterbury Tales, aka The Stories Of Geoff, directed with wicked panache by Emily Quash, grabs five of Chaucer’s-500-year-old mini soap operas by their proverbials and twists them into something troublingly resonant for our times. Or something like that.

But hey, before we get bogged down in a tub of theories, best we meet the Pilgrim crew. In the (dis)order they appear, all back-packed -up and togged out in yellow, redolent of manky Ghostbusters, first there’s Noah Lukehurst’s Geoff, our genial, accommodating narrator and friendly host for the journey. Next up, Calum Blackie’s exquisitely corrupt and creepy Pardoner, enticing us to touch his relics and fondle his holy slacks, then Syd Sutherland’s pervy Summoner, so sweatily lechy as his arse is being searched by a Friar, eventually emitting the Fart Of All Farts to choke and suffocate Greed. Rumour has it an audience prude was provoked enough at this particular smuttery to make complaint to the management!

The Knight’s Tale’s a ballet of organised chaos, so much going on you don’t know where to look for fear of something mad or important escaping the corner of your eye. Then, just about top of this ambling heap is Jesamine Dempsey’s boozy Northern Miller, a bluff, head-banging vomitarian and bellicose belcher who utterly rejoices in recounting his/her saucy story of cuckoldry, bum-kissing and that red hot poker rammed up the pooper by way of retribution.

Finally to the farmyard and Ben Jeffery and Sophia Rowlatt’s lovely-slash-extremely silly Sonny & Cher re-enactment of the Chanticleer tale with Calum Blackie again as a sexy fox, it’s all clucking hilarious.

The language is rich and throbbing throughout. “Sirens for the naughty ones, sirens for the dying… The pukey travel-sick boy’s wiping bits off his t-shirt with his sister’s wet wipes… A drive-thru spelt wrongly… The angry woman from pump 3 who’s late and jangling her keys behind the man requesting latte… Will there be fudge? …Boarded up Little Chefs… Cliff Richards Of Dover…” The script’s full of melancholy snapshots of Brexit w(e)ary Britain, the Pilgrims trapped in a motion of go-and-return, hiking to a cacophony of mobile phones.

The choral core appears to be “And nothing ever changes.” Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do learn, ditto. There’s no escape.

Even the soundtrack unpacks like a Russian doll: Blur’s magnificently melancholic This Is A Low one of the peaks of Britpop, a movement that genuflected to the swinging 60s for its principal inspiration, or Madness with their One Step Beyond, Norf Lahdan bovver boys with a racist skinhead following revelling absurdly, inexplicably in the ska brought over in the boats by the Jamaican immigrants they purport to loathe.

So what to do? What to say? One learned friend of mine who knows his Chaucer inside out reckons, just like Dylan said in All Along The Watchtower, the author’s slant was that life is but a joke, and he supported that claim by pointing to Old Geoff’s Troilus, ascending to heaven, looking down on all the dolts left struggling on earth, and laughing.

Then again, one cast member’s interpretation was sod hopes, dreams and strictures, just live for the moment. Like Master Oogway says to Po in the mighty Kung Fu Panda: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” Geoff’s plea near the end seems to bear (panda?) this out. The company’s been mulling over the myth of Sisyphus, sentenced to pointlessly roll a rock up a hill over and over, for eternity, when Geoff says: “We can’t have him sad with his pointless rock. Because the real challenge is to want nothing to be different…”

Ben Hepworth’s Monk joins in: “Think of him smiling at his work. Forever. We can do that at least. Imagine that he’s smiling? Can’t we?”

His voice trails off in doubt and desperation as this bright, bawdy philosophical seaside postcard of a show crashes to a halt with The Sex Pistols mocking Her Madge. And I guess at that moment that Monk, he speaks for us all.