Having never written a theatre review before, I gave it a go for ‘Hamlet’, which was performed at The Little Theatre a few weeks ago.

Where to start with a review of last night’s opening performance of ‘Hamlet’ at The Little Theatre … With a severely raked stone-effect set and various bits of rope and netting hanging down around the back and side wings (fantastic set design from Kevin Jenkins), the stage is set for a dramatically different retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy. As the actors line up across the front of the stage, a theatrical fanfare sounds and King Claudius and his wife, Gertrude – Jane Durant, perfectly cast as always – make their way forward from the two back entrances to the auditorium. Applause comes from each of the characters … apart from Hamlet, played to outstanding perfection by James Hill, who spends the majority of the play simmering with barely contained internal torment.

In this intense set, a brilliant ensemble of actors plays. Hamlet is understandably a little cheesed off that his uncle Claudius (a magnificent Ken Huggett) is now King of Denmark due to the murder, by Claudius, of Hamlet’s father. From this quite simple starting point comes tragedy after tragedy. Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have held back with this one – madness, suicide, murder, secrets, ghosts and yes, even some pitch-black comedy.

Each actor is worth noting, but standouts include Graham Muir as Horatio – Hamlet’s best and most faithful friend – and Ellie Bowness, double-cast as Polonia (a gender reversal of Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes) and the light-relief gravedigger. Horatio’s grief at the very end of the play is tangible, and comes in sharp contrast to the frat-boy attitude of Hamlet’s other two pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Marisha West and Francesca Leone respectively). Both Muir and Bowness are fantastic to watch, even when they’re in the background of a scene.

Another well-deserved mention must go to Ophelia (Shannan Mitchener) and Laertes (Stuart Bryan). Ophelia’s descent into madness – singing to herself as she lays her head on her brother’s shoulder – is nothing short of beautifully tragic, and Laertes’ reaction to her death and burial is heartbreakingly superb.

Director Pip Nixon has put together an amazing show with smooth yet dramatic scene changes, a clear focus, and a cohesiveness that is both impressive and unmatched. The lighting design of Rob Thirlby and the costume design of John Bale enhance the show in their own ways. The cast are clothed in black, neutral clothes, with the odd splashes of colour thrown in. The spooky appearance of the ghost of the murdered king is made all the more creepy by some terrific lighting, and everything complements everything else.

I encourage you to go see this production. Amateur Shakespeare productions tend to be a bit hit and miss, but this sterling effort from The Little is definitely a hit, as proven by the comments overheard during the interval. If you want to escape from the ongoing political crises and shuffle into Elsinore Castle for a couple of hours, then come out and support these fine players.

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