The Pantaloons, whose name could easily be a conflation of pantechnical and lunatics, are a troupe of former City high-flyers who turn the comedies and problem plays of Shakespeare into, well, problematic comedies.
Performing last week at The Scoop, an amphitheatrical basin next to the Greater London Authority's testicular home and in what is preposterously known as 'More London' (as if a small plot of new glass offices on the South Bank added something to the city), their Taming of the Shrew is now touring around the country. Good job, too - exposure to a knockabout, commedia dell'arte style of the Bard could well interest children, as well as amuse adults.
The Pantaloons' approach is for all five them of them to play as many roles as they can possibly conceive of, with perpetual on-stage costume changes, and to have a simple set, but dozens of props to be battered about. Using a more comic, riotous style, drawn from all genres of performance (including slapstick and silent movies), they hope to bring out energy that could otherwise be lost.
It is fair to claim that they do indeed bring a great deal of energy to the play, and the laughs (so easily missable in Shakespeare's comedies) are plentiful. They also include lots of material devised by them to soften any edges they think are too rough or inject a contemporary feel. This works humour-wise - bringing back Gremio, who feels excluded from the play was fine - and in fact even helps take your mind off what is a rather lumpen plot.
The obvious concomitant problem is that it is very hard to inject seriousness when people keep pulling their trousers down, and there is no less seriousness in the Shrew than anywhere else. It becomes quite difficult to appreciate Kate's pain with a sudden jack-knife into drama. The constant comedy runs the risk of underplaying the other elements.
Having said that, the comic elements were certainly enjoyable, despite the best efforts of three future young offenders (no older than 12 now), whose idea of hilarity was to ride their bikes into the Scoop and yell 'pillock' at the actors. One shouted something about magic mushrooms, which implies he may actually have been a child since the 60s.
Caitlin Storery was a wonderfully versatile Bianca and Gremio (with a Methuselah-esque beard), and Don Conway and Mark Hayward made a handsome, suave Lucentio and a tough Petruchio. Martin Gibbons was hilariously nerdy, and Sarah Norton a surprisingly violent Kate. Particularly well played was the scene when Lucentio and Hortensio are trying to teach Bianca.
The Pantaloons have a noble ideal and a novel concept, and it would be wonderful if they could tour all year, all about the country. But - and I can only imagine this, having seen just this - there are only so many plays, and so many times, this knockabout approach will work. Just like any other theatrical concept, its strength will be seen in its flexibility.