Pros: Entertaining and charming from start to finish. A talented cast displaying an infectious passion for the Bard and bikes.
Cons: The four actors’ fast and furious feat of playing every role in play was a little confusing at points.
The Shakespeare play most worthy of a new twist is perhaps The Comedy of Errors. The story of two sets of twins, given the same names but mismatched, makes for mayhem and lunacy when, as adults, they end up in the same place. The comedy comes out of the mistaken identities that stretch for nearly the entire play, and keeping up the farce can prove quite a strain for the most ardent of production teams. So a degree of ingenuity goes a long way.
Enter The Handlebards – four men bicycling their way through a 2000-mile European tour, carrying their set, costume and camping equipment, to perform in total over seventy performances of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth. I must admit, I thought the chances of four itinerant cyclists being top-notch Shakespearian actors was too good to be true, but blow me down with a bicycle pump, their show was an absolute cracker. And with the exuberance displayed by these four actors, who assume every role in the play, I imagine they’re clocking up a similar mileage on stage as they are on their bikes.
The play was performed in the grand hall of the Museum of the Order of St John, which, with its dark wood panelled walls, aristocratic portraits and lavish furnishings, is like a mini version of the Great Hall of Hogwarts (or Christ Church Oxford as some still like to call it!). Signs of them having just arrived at their next performance stop are aplenty – the bikes and helmets were on display around two lightweight tents that conceal the marvels of the play’s many costume changes and nifty sound effects.
From start to finish the show is pure entertainment. The intro and outro live music from a local band, who strum through a welter of pleasingly softened pop tunes, provides a most welcome accompaniment. The cast are dressed in vintage bike fashion and their brightly coloured knee-high socks are only outdone by the courtesan’s hilarious brassier constructed primarily from two shuttlecocks.
The actors – Callum Brodie, Callum Cheatle, Tom Dixon, and Paul Moss – were technically brilliant at executing a vast amount of theatrical tricks that keep the energy high throughout. Puppetry, using warped tennis rackets and puppet socks is used to narrate the deliciously woeful tale of the twins’ separation in a storm and shipwreck. A bicycle bell signals the frenzied character and costume shifts, where the cast inventively jump in and out of the vacant items of clothing they hold up, in order to show us which characters are on stage. And when they run out of limbs, they enlist audience members in a way that made comic as well as practical sense. The female roles are inhabited even more convincingly and comically than the male roles, which was a joy to see, as the exchanges between the jealous wife and her meek sister are some of the best lines. The only issue with this performance is that the action does get a little confusing in the third quarter, as the mix-ups build to a head, so a quick read through a synopsis is advised.
Overall, this entertaining and charming show is not to be missed. There is the feeling of ‘something that is just meant to be’ about The Handlebards and their quirky enterprise. They somehow manage to put across the feeling of what it must have been like to perform the plays in Shakespeare’s day whilst still managing to feel modern and fresh. If you love old bits of London, the Museum of the Order of St John, housed in a 16th century gatehouse, with impressive collections of art and artefacts, is definitely worth a visit.