I have often wondered, with the best in theatre on their doorstep and regular new work from the best crew of playwrights and actors ever gathered in one place, why Elizabethan audiences would pay an additional fourpence to watch plays performed by child companies. And after watching The Malcontent at the new Wanamaker, I still don't have the answer. Which is strange since the play was written for a Children's company by John Marston in 1603, so watching a production in an absolutely beautiful, perfectly recreated Jacobean theatre should have solved the mystery from the off.
But it didn't. Your modern theatre goer with kids of a certain age has seen a lot of children's theatre. And though I've seen a couple of memorable productions of Midsummer Night's Dream, I've winced through most of it. The bar is set in a different place for modern viewers and there is an elephant trap made from bad experiences of Nativity extravaganzas which any new child production has to avoid at all costs.
There's another problem that needs careful skirting. Times have changed. What are we to make of the highly sexualised content of the material in the mouths of 12 year old boys and girls in our age of CRB checks for cricket tea ladies?
Well the original idea, I think, was to place a layer of ironic distance between the actors and the material. And that still works. And hearing them discussing the ins and outs of 'cornuto' status and the faithlessness of women created a lot of laughs in the audience. It's edgy enjoyment. But it's real enough.
Sadly, the separation from school drama doesn't work nearly so well. Only some of the cast have the acting chops to make it work. It would help if they were evenly talented but 16-year old Sam Hird's outstanding cross-dressing, hideously avaricious old trollope, Maquerelle, was excellent. Eddie Izzard wouldn't have been an improvement. Cyril Fletcher would have been proud. But the other leads failed to measure up and whilst they amazed at their flawless memories, they frequently fell into the trap of gabbling the lines out with a few stock hand gestures, faster than a lot of the audience could take them in. There were a lot of blank faces. And quite a few empty seats in the second half.
I'm sure there'll be more children's performances. But this one was not a success. I'd recommend bigger cuts, slower delivery, a bit more variety and more concentration on the humour.
Anyway, the theatre itself is a great environment but if you're planning a visit then, like The Globe, you'll get more enjoyment, really quite a lot more, if you choose the best seats. Sightlines were not a priority in the recreation. Authenticity has a few drawbacks. Standing is cheap but the view is - well - appalling. You're looking down at a steep rake, through the chandeliers at about 2/3rds of the stage. The chandeliers hang lower than than the upper floor and are surprisingly obtrusive, even from the front rows. Don't sit in the sides of the upper gallery as you'll be looking at the tops of the actors heads, go for the end looking at the front of the stage. Sit in the front row and you can lean on the balustrade which makes up for the lack of a seat back.
The best seats are in the lower gallery at either side of the stage. The front row allows you to lean on the balustrade and join the action and the rear row have the back wall to lean back onto. That's where I'll be sitting next time. Better than benches in the middle.
In the pit only the rear row would be survivable. The other seats are on backless benches at right angles to the stage. People who don't return to them after the interval may be suffering from cricked necks rather than artistic disappointment.
It's a brilliant experience but just as I've always thought it wouldn't hurt The Globe to have a glass roof, I think you could recreate the lighting exactly without candles and improve the sightlines without detracting from the authenticity of the experience. But then it wouldn't be authentic, would it?