I’m not going to beat about the bush, I am thoroughly biased. To paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie, ‘for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like’. And I do. I like it. Some people like messing about in boats, I like reclining on a grassy bank eating posh nibbles and drinking fizz while a bunch of expert thespians eager to please entertain me. It’s the nearest I’m ever going to get to being Louis XIV.
Park shows are fraught. Weather, acoustics, wildlife, random members of the public – the enemies of promise stack up like the pram park at a Julia Donaldson signing. I’ve seen good productions ruined by any or all of the above. I’ve even been in some. But when The Dukes are playing Lancaster’s Williamson Park, we are in safe hands. They are experts. I’ve had some memorable moments at their shows,so I came to Hattie Naylor’s adaptation of the Dumas classic with hopes for great happenings. I was not disappointed.
The story is pretty faithful to the original. It’s the 1620s, the time of Louis XIII, father to Le Roi Soleil and, in Naylor’s version, a man not very interested in anything except his hair. The country is secretly run by Cardinal Richlieu, and it’s the struggle between these two that drives the plot.
Young farmboy D’Artagnan leaves his village, taking the family’s only horse, to pursue his dream of joining the Kings’ Musketeers just like his dead dad. All he has is a letter of introduction from his father to M.Treville, commander of the Musketeers, and a few sous. He is relieved of both fairly swiftly and ends up in Paris with nothing but a sword, an aptitude for getting into trouble, and in this production, a talking carthorse.
There are lots of swords. Devotees of the Richard Lester films will not be disappointed by the amount of rapier work going on here. Within five minutes of arriving in town D’Artagnan manages to challenge three different swordsmen to a duel – the Musketeers, of course – and to fall in love with the Queen’s dressmaker, Constance. There follows a very silly plot about the Queen’s necklace and the English prime minister, just like in the book.
Naylor has created the world of 17th century France with considerably more accuracy than that triumph of camp nonsense, the BBC’s Versailles, but she has brought a modern twist. D’Artagnan is a girl pretending to be a boy in order to get into the Musketeers, which becomes a problem when she and Constance fall in love. The King is as camp as a row of pink tents, and there are other gender secrets lurking. All are revealed in a glorious ending, but you’ll have to go to find out what they are.
This is the first park show from The Dukes’ new artistic director, Sarah Punshon, and it’s extremely accomplished. The casting is impeccable and the accuracy of the doubling and speed of the costume changes astonishing. The people with me had no idea that Planchet the horse and Cardinal Richlieu were played by the same actor, Christopher Bianchi, who gives us a warm, funny Planchet, slightly out of his depth, in complete contrast to his Cardinal Richlieu where he channels the great Ian Richardson from the BBC’s House of Cards to terrifying effect. He rides the audience’s hisses with a wonderfully deadpan “it’s not Christmas”.’
The other doubles are equally convincing, and I’m still trying to work out who played the King’s hairdresser. Only Lucy Jane Parkinson – terrific as D’Artagnan – doesn’t double, but she does get to dress up as a girl at the ball, a disguise of course, lending an ironic poignancy to the final revelations. This is clever, funny, thoroughly entertaining stuff, and the company were ably assisted by 18 members of the Dukes’ Community Company who provided essential support as soldiers, citizens and ball dancers.
The Ashton memorial is well suited to double as a French palace and Parisian square, and if I have a quibble the scenes there were perforce so long that the moves around the park seemed a little onerous. Perhaps the trick to this sort of thing is to keep it moving. On the other hand, the switch from sunny Paris in the square to dank England in the dark damp dell was hilarious, although the action in the dell wasn’t entirely clear. Note to design: give the King an orange firework in the top of his sceptre that he can trigger at the end of the dance which opens the ball, it needs a top. Note to self: get some better portable thrones for next year.