Plays about the theatre can often have a curate’s egg quality, and this Restoration romp by prolific Irish writer John O’Keeffe, chosen by Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris to reopen the oldest working playhouse in the country after a £12 million facelift, is no exception.
Cornelius Booth (Lamp), Sam Alexander (Rover) and Sion Tudor Owen (Trap) in Wild Oats at the Theatre Royal Studio, Bristol Photo: Mark Douet
Itinerant actor Jack Rover may not be your Kenneth Branagh or your Simon Russell Beale - more your Russell Brand really, with his tiresome japes and constant switches of identity.
He and the other ten players are handicapped by a vastly over-complicated plot and over-wrought direction by National Theatre protege Mark Rosenblatt, borrowing the opening scene straight out of a Jim Davidson pantomime routine and misfiring on the few attempts at giving the helter-skelter action a modern theatrical significance.
In mitigation though, there is a final reconciliation scene that balances just the right amounts of hilarious astonishment and genuine delight, and the mighty Rover’s penchant for finding a Shakespearean quote for every occasion is a clever challenge to the audience’s own knowledge of the Bard. Where this mix of affectionate nostalgia and histrionic prose does fall down is in having only a marginal involvement in the pleasures of the stage, despite the theatrical nature of its colourful characters.
Sam Alexander revels in Jack Rover’s mercurial character, but is altogether too much of a contrast to Jo Herbert’s do-gooding Lady Amaranth to render their instant love for each other credible. Kim Wall makes the most of the rumbustious old sea dog Sir George Thunder, while Hugh Skinner comes closest to revealing a true love of the theatre as prodigal son Harry Thunder.