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As You Like It review at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘lively but feather-light’

Lucy Phelps and David Ajao in As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Topher McGrillis

All the world’s a stage in Kimberley Sykes’ sunny production of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy. The transformative magic of the Forest of Arden is intertwined with the world of the theatre. When Rosalind and Celia are cast out, the house lights go up and the actors switch their tailored suits, constrictive dresses and high heels for ragged coats, flowing skirts and bare feet.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ simple set is a reflection of the stage itself, consisting of a disc of wooden floorboards that looks a bit like Botticelli’s clamshell, atmospherically lit by Bretta Gerecke (who also designed the costumes, a first for the Royal Shakespeare Company).

Lucy Phelps make an affable, expressive Rosalind in T-shirt and braces, her hair slicked back, her face flushed with love. She’s warm and funny. David Ajao is a charismatic, swaggering Orlando, doing as much as anyone can with one of Shakespeare’s flimsier romantic roles. He’s a lot more robust than is usually the case. The sight of him after his wrestling match all but stops Rosalind in her tracks. Their love does not quite come across as a passion for the ages, rather an instance of summer lust – but you can hardly blame her.

Sophie Stanton invests Jacques with a sense of wistfulness; she’s someone who has long ago learned not to hope too hard or too much. But it’s Sandy Grierson’s Touchstone who really stands out, looking like an exile from a Glaswegian glam-rock band, with butter-yellow tartan trousers, a scarlet faux fur jacket, bleary eye make-up and long, lank hair, which he habitually flicks.

He’s an impish and rascally presence. In one of the production’s most enjoyable sequences, he calls upon Tom Dawze’s bashful William to assist in his wooing of Charlotte Arrowsmith’s Audrey through British Sign Language. This three-way exchange is delightful and wittily staged.

Sykes’ production is studded with song, performed delicately and melodically by Emily Johnstone. The band, perched on a balcony above, is made a feature of the staging, called on to perform by the characters.

While love-struck shepherd Sylvius is now Sylvia (Amelia Donkor), the production only lightly explores gender and sexual fluidity. Nor does Sykes overly push the meta-theatrical aspect. Its tone is more gently embracive and accepting, buoyant if inconsequential.

The arrival of Hymen for the final marital extravaganza is, however, something of a coup de theatre. But while puppet designer Mervyn Millar’s garlanded god of marriage is certainly memorable, it’s also kind of dead-eyed and terrifying – in ways presumably unintended.

Bar a couple of sluggish sequences, the production bobs along. It feels a tad scattered and directionless at times, coasting on the charms of its cast, particularly Phelps’, but like a glass of fizz on a warm day, it’s mostly sweet and pleasing.

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Verdict
Lively and bubbly, if feather-light, production of Shakespeare's romantic comedy
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