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Pericles review at National Theatre, London – ‘joyous, lively and community-focused’

The cast of Pericles at the National Theatre, London. Photo: James Bellorini

“Rufus: we’ve got a problem with some flying stuff.” The opening night of Emily Lim’s Pericles at the National Theatre is in full-on party mode when the Olivier stage is evacuated while a technical glitch involving descending scenery is sorted out.

In the unplanned intermission, Rufus Norris gets on stage, explains what the deal is – allowing the captioning team to have some fun.

But this May Day call for a malfunctioning May Pole barely detracts from the charms of the show. In fact, it almost adds to them.

The first piece of programming in the National Theatre’s new Public Acts initiative, this ambitious and big-hearted work involves 200+ non-professional performers joining a small cast of professional actors in a musical version of Shakespeare’s Pericles, adapted here by Chris Bush with music by Jim Fortune.

Parts of Pericles have the feeling of the best-financed school play in existence. There’s a kazoo orchestra, flower crowns, glitzy streamers, cheerleading and – for Love, Actually fans – a cute child in a lobster costume (indeed, adorable children are a recurring feature).

Bush’s adaptation streamlines the famously convoluted tale of the Prince of Tyre into a parable of a man who has everything, loses everything, undertakes an epic journey and, eventually, learns the meaning of ‘home’. But while the story’s messages are integral to the project’s ethos, the play is also a vehicle for community groups and individuals showcasing their singing, dancing or other impressive talents.

At the centre of the professional cast is Ashley Zhangazha’s Pericles, sliding from confident young prince into grieving older statesman. The naturalism of his switch from speaking to singing, and back again, is a delight. The scene-stealing vocals, however, belong to Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Thaisa, especially when she appears in spirit form.

The highlights often come courtesy of the music performed by the community groups. Both the Faithworks Gospel Choir and the London Bulgarian Choir are superb, as are the Bhavan Centre Drummers. A solo by a Helen Adesanya as Child Marina singing about her daddy fighting dragons probably melted every heart in the auditorium.

Some of the later scenes set in a cabaret don’t work as well. The more adult humour and the narrative of a teenager girl sold into a bizarre form of slavery that sees her performing awkward Little Voice-style sets in front of an image of a gaping, fleshy pink seashell (even Botticelli wasn’t quite that obvious with his imagery) sits strangely alongside the otherwise family-friendly vibe.

But as a show about ‘home’ infused with community spirit and committed to inclusivity, it’s a great success.

Playwright Chris Bush: ‘With social media, it’s like we’re learning a new language’

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A joyous, lively and community-focused reimagining of Shakespeare from the National Theatre’s new Public Acts programme