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Cymbeline review at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘Shakespearean panto’

Jonjo O'Neill and Emily Barber in Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sam Yates’ fast-moving and never flagging production of Cymbeline walks a thin and sometimes wavering line between heroic drama and Christmas panto, both of which turn out to be quite acceptable as interpretations of the late Shakespearean romance.

And while the play opens and closes in heroic mode, and returns to it frequently, the victory of the holiday spirit is evident in the audience’s eagerness to laugh happily at every line or plot turn that can be heard as comic.

Certainly the play has a lot of the fairytale about it, including (among many other elements) a damsel in distress, an evil stepmother, a panto-level villain, a bumbling would-be villain, a kindly hermit, a Juliet-style death-feigning potion, and the direct intervention of the god Jupiter, who here takes a female form suggesting a fairy godmother.

The good guys are very good, though occasionally confused, the bad guys are very bad, though as likely as not to repent and reform, and whether taken seriously or comically, it all works.

The titular king is actually a minor character in the play, which centres on his daughter Innogen, who Emily Barber plays as strong and assertive, equally passionate in love, anger and grief, so that it is believable that everyone she meets is drawn to her.

Jonjo O’Neill is appropriately stalwart as her briefly alienated husband, Trevor Fox admirable as a bravely loyal servant, and Pauline McLynn, Eugene O’Hare and Calum Callaghan equally hiss-worthy as the villains.

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Late Shakespeare romance has a happy holiday season feel to it, practically a Shakespearean panto