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REVIEW: All's Well That Ends Well at the Playbox Theatre

Grace Martin’s King addresses Charlie Davis’ red-scarfed Lafew as courtiers look on
Grace Martin’s King addresses Charlie Davis’ red-scarfed Lafew as courtiers look on

Steve Sutherland reviews the production from 18th March

ALL’S Well That Ends Well is a seldom-staged, hence little known, work by Shakespeare, dubbed one of his Problem Plays because, in all honesty, no-one really seems to know what to make of it. Is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? Do the means justify the ends? Who are the goodies? Who are the baddies? Is there a moral to the tale and if so, what on earth could it be? Questions…questions...

Hats off, then, to Playbox Theatre’s Young Shakespeare Company for being bold enough to stage it and, far beyond that, courageous enough to let it flourish with all its quibbles intact. Roughly, the plot goes: Helena’s in love with Bertram but is too far socially beneath him to stand a chance; except that her dead father was a physician and left her a potion that would cure the king of his seemingly fatal ailments. She gets the king going again and he, in exchange, grants her the husband of her dreams. She chooses Bertram, they marry against every fibre of his being and he scoots off to war rather than consecrate the marriage.

From then on there is multiple skulduggery involving rings, disguises and maidens deflowered climaxing in uncomfortable comeuppances, convoluted revelations, mechanical resolutions and sudden, improbable changes of heart.

Shakespeare rejoiced in flaying convention and this drama’s an absolute beano. The traditional scenario of the damsel being forced to marry against her will is given a very pleasing twist, with the young buck being the one subjected to imposed matrimony. But… questions… questions… Is Helena proof that nobility is more than the legacy of bloodline or does her cunning point to crude ambition? Do we decide Bertram’s a spoiled brat or is he an innocent wronged?

All these doubts enable much fun for the characters who continually chafe against the role they’ve been given, the ensemble romping with the opportunities, even cheekily casting a female king — the quicksilver Grace Martin — revelling in the play’s perversions.

And so it goes. With meanings and morals up for grabs, the cast are free to have a field day.

Priya Edwards adds to her excellent line of recent emotional leads with a lovely passionate Helena, Laura Woodhouse plays the Countess Rossillion to a matriarchal tee, Charlie Davis is tip top as the comedic Lafew, an aged Lord turns crotchety, bemused and feisty. Dan Bainbridge does well in the difficult role of the strapping, pompous Bertram, and Eilidh Evans is a delight as the inexplicable diversion, Lavatch the clown.

Top of the heap, though, is Lynton Appleton who plays the handsome, raffish Parolles. A swaggering braggart if ever there was one, he’s the mirror image of the demurely scheming Helena, a peacock full of windy boasts. Appleton plays him like George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, for sure a cad and a coward, yet endowed with such jittery, cocky verve that, against our better natures, we wish him better than his downfall. The scene where he is duped by his own troupe, bag over head, betraying all while the gang berate him in pigeon Russian pretty much steals the whole show.

After the first of the three performances, the cast hosted a Q&A with the audience. On the subject of Bertram — absolute bounder or boy poorly served? — even the cast were split 50/50.

So, does it all end well? That’s entirely up to you. But no question, the whole thing’s played out beautifully.

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