As You Like It, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, review: Shakespeare's summer loving gets a Nineties makeover

Rosemary Waugh
Edward Hogg and Olivia Vinall in 'As You Like It': Jane Hobson

A slimy, shallow pool of water filled with floating Quavers packets, Coke cans and bin bags isn’t something you expect to see in Regent’s Park, particularly at the Open Air Theatre where the average picnic is transported in a wicker hamper and served with iced champers on the side.

But Max Webster’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It opens on exactly this, thanks to Naomi Dawson’s detailed and playful set design which makes the court of Duke Frederick (Simon Armstrong) a corporate conveyer belt of suits and surveillance where the next Starbucks round is the number one priority. In contrast, the play’s famous Forest of Arden is a ramshackle rural paradise of upcycled tyres turned into hanging baskets and shared feasts of microbrewed beer and fresh fruit.

Webster has been down the environmental route before in his superb staging of Dr Seuss’s The Lorax at the Old Vic. Here, the theme is taken up fairly lightly with the crowd left to figure out for themselves why it’s bad to keep dumping Pret cups in a river. In fact, there’s a lightness of touch to everything about this version of As You Like It, with Shakespeare’s convoluted comedy subtly streamlined into a sun-streaked romcom.

Rosalind (Olivia Vinall) falls for her Orlando (Edward Hogg) quicker than a Love Island contestant. Banished from court, she runs off to the forest with her cousin, the self-reliant Celia (played brilliantly by Keziah Joseph). This being a Shakespeare comedy we now get the trademark switching of identities and genders.

Vinall’s Rosalind, however, gives the impression of really enjoying being able to lop five inches of her blonde mane, shove on jeans and a hoodie, and loaf about in sneakers instead of tottering in heals.

Vinall makes Ganymede a version of the high school slacker – backwards baseball cap, clumsy crotch-grab and all – who skated in and out of teen flicks a few decades back; she could be Breckin Meyer’s Travis in Clueless. There’s a Nineties American vibe to the Arden scenes generally, with the wholesome, waterside community having a whiff of Dawson’s Creek about it.

The catchy, indie-pop music composed by Charlie Fink (formerly of Noah and the Whale, and previous collaborator with Webster on The Lorax), only adds to this bouncy, slightly retro aura. The songs are gorgeously performed by Me’sha Bryan, and it’s her skill that allows the music – and production – to just about get away with its cheesier moments, in particular a pop video-worthy scene involving coyly splashing around in the (now crisp packet-free) pool.

The whole production is summer fun, pure and simple, that capitalises on the Open Air Theatre’s twilit, tree-lined charms. It ends with a Glasto-style wedding, the women in Hunter wellies and vintage lace, a pretty picture hard not to swoon over.

But the biggest accomplishment is that it’s actually funny (a factor notably lacking in most performances of the bard’s ‘comedies’). Danny Kirrane’s Touchstone scene-steals with a vengeance, and Jacade Simpson’s Silvius pursues the thoroughly unimpressed Phebe (Joanne McGuinness) with a giant, floppy teddy bear in tow. Go, laugh, and remember to recycle your rubbish afterwards.

Until 28 July (openairtheatre.com)