Eastbourne – “vivid, accomplished and hugely likeable” Taming of the Shrew

REVIEW BY KEVIN ANDERSON

Thursday, 29th July 2021, 11:12 am
But will Petruchio (Mike Barber) always have the upper hand with Katerina (Elianna Matisse)?
But will Petruchio (Mike Barber) always have the upper hand with Katerina (Elianna Matisse)?

The Taming of the Shrew, Eastbourne Operatic and Dramatic Society, Italian garden, Friday, July 23 to Saturday, August 7, 7.30 pm

2021 celebrates twenty years of EODS Shakespeare at Holywell – and half a century of open-air theatre, from the Rude Mechanicals and the former Shakespeare Society before them. And this year, the Italian Gardens are brought alive with a vivid, accomplished and hugely likeable Taming of the Shrew.

Happily, on opening night there were no elements to be tamed, and only a light breeze off the Channel to challenge the actors. With this year’s production extended to cover three weekends, the company will praying for fine weather.

They certainly deserve it. The programme lists almost fifty performers and production staff, and this massive annual undertaking is a brilliant team effort. Safety provisions have been carefully thought out and immaculately carried out.

Jaz Manville’s directorial debut for EODS is bold, inventive and alive with freshness. With Sue Backhouse alongside her as producer, she moves the action from Padua to a rather classy 1920s Kensington. Motor designer Petruchio arrives from dour Dagenham rather than vibrant Verona, while other visitors make the long haul from New Jersey and Denver.

From the opening fashion catwalk, the show is fabulously dressed, brightly lit, and overlaid with period musical and dance numbers from Gershwin to the Charleston. A feast for the eyes and ears.

Like many directors, Jaz dispenses with the “Induction” that sets the story as a play within a play – no loss – and then takes us immediately by surprise. Not a father with two daughters to marry off, but a mother. Jane Tingley’s Baptista is absolutely outstanding: assertive, measured, knowing.

Younger daughter Bianca – her sweetness and naivety beautifully captured by Natasha Heath-Brown – is desperate to marry, but protocol demands that older sister Katherina must first be matched and wed.

Ellianna Matisse is the very essence of Kate: flame-hair, fiery eyes and fierce spirit. Her movement and body language are perfect, and that old “inhabiting the part” cliché was never more apt. A strong independent woman indeed – but who shall tame her?

Enter Petruchio in the shape of Mike Barber. A master of many Shakespeare roles, Mike is an imposing, confident stage presence with a superb command of the language as well as the character. His Petruchio has designs on the Baptista family fortune as well as Kate’s hand in marriage, but they are never malign.

Everywhere you look, there is splendid acting. Kirsten Grinstead’s Tranio is dippy and delightful; Ash Jones is perfect as the worldly-wise servant wiser than his masters. Melodie Gibson gleefully fizzes and bounces as Grumia, Petruchio’s niece and servant, and Ioana-Adriana Tanaszi is his loyal housekeeper.

Heather Tingley expertly covers lots of bit-part bases. Like Heather, the talented graduates from Young EODS are prominent. They include Sean Wilson’s confident Lucenzio, Ollie Price as a decisive but far from pedantic Pedant, and a versatile Amy Rayiru.

Seasoned support, too, from Kim Ramakrishnan, Rachel Jackson, Paul Walker, Marie Britton and Paddy Johnson.

The tech team, as always, are unsung heroes. Never mind being half a mile from proper electricity and ringed by overhanging foliage: no task is too daunting, and the set, lighting and effects are really professional. Great credit to Andy Newell, Ryan Tate and their squad.

Approaching Kate’s final speech, we hold our collective breath. Ellianna’s delivery weaves and teases around a static, hapless Petruchio. At her final line “And place your hands below your husband’s foot...” the tension is broken by a gale of laughter from the company. The 2021 equivalent, from this young and buoyant generation, might be something like “Men in charge? Yeah, right...”

This, simply, is a very special and magical Eastbourne occasion. The setting, the sense of tradition and the simple joy of being together again. This EODS company, bursting with talent and uncrushed by Covid, has triumphed yet again.

REVIEW BY KEVIN ANDERSON

Tickets £19, £17 and £16 from Eastbourne Theatres box office 01323 412000.