Jubilee Gardens, tucked behind Canary Wharf tube station, make a suitably leafy home for London’s newest eco-venue, Greenhouse Theatre. You can relax about the weather though, the show is safely indoors. More of a robust shed than its name might suggest, the Greenhouse is a vaguely octagonal structure with bench seating along its sides. It is certainly small, basic and intimate and yet, mercifully, far from cramped. It feels rough-hewn and organic, but this is totally in keeping with the theatre’s stance on climate change and zero-waste status. (You can find out more about this in our recent interview with Oli Savage here.)
Organic and rough-hewn is probably a fair description of their production of As You Like It too. This is not a criticism, it is rather an acknowledgement that the show prioritises enjoyment, accessibility and in-the-moment engagement over formality or tightly delivered verse. This is exemplified by the fact it starts with some no-holds-barred, gutsy fight choreography during which, at one point, I feared an elderly audience member was being encouraged to join in a little too enthusiastically.
This approach only becomes a problem briefly during folksy musical interludes. The sense of a free-for-all when it came to singing and musicianship leads to varying quality and a feeling that the cast might be having more fun than those being asked to listen. Filler is probably too strong a word, but their purpose certainly isn’t clear.
When things work though, they work delightfully. I was particularly taken with the relationship between Rosalind (Eliza Harris) and beloved cousin Celia (Ayesha Milner-Glover). Their scenes feel fresh, new and entirely genuine. They discuss love in a way that’s entirely recognisable if you’ve heard teens discuss their boyband crushes. Passions run deep but never weigh heavy. When the inevitable sighing and swooning over Orlando comes, it is joyful, free and, most importantly, laugh-out-loud funny.
Phillip Jones’ take on world-weary forest-dweller Jacques, who delivers the famous seven ages of man speech, is another comic highlight. Your reviewer found his misanthropic one-liners and long coat so reminiscent of Withnail, I imagined him arriving at the Forest of Arden ‘by mistake.’ Jones also plays the long-suffering shepherd, Silvius. His unrequited love for Pheobe, played with great comic skill by Sarah Chamberlain, drives much of Act 2 action too.
The character doubling, inevitable with a small cast, is deftly handled for the most part. Simple costume changes performed with little fanfare ensure we know who’s who. The wheels fall off slightly at the mass wedding finale thanks to the complexities of the romantic couplings. By that stage though, it all feels part of the fun. Other moments break the fourth wall throughout and there are fun instances of physical comedy around entrances, exits and general rushing around. I found myself wanting more of them. They certainly seemed moments the cast relished.
Once the marriages are over, the singing is interrupted by Rosalind’s epilogue. I’ll not spoil it for people new to As you Like It, but it must count as one of Shakespeare’s most interesting pieces of writing to interpret for modern audiences, gender-conscious as we all are.
If you can cope with your Shakespeare a little rough and ready, there are enough laughs, enthusiasm and charm on display at the Greenhouse Theatre to keep you happy. The two hour run time flies by, an impressive achievement in itself. You will find yourself applauding the young, gifted cast heartily at the end too. Supported by Canary Wharf, tickets are on a pay-what-you-can basis so there’s no reason you shouldn’t give it a go.
Directed by: Oli Savage
Produced by: Sarah Chamberlain & Holly Cowley
As You Like It is playing on rotation with Hjem and 12 until 15 August. Further information and booking via the below link.