One of the many good things about Cranleigh is the way that the community manages to maintain a sense of humour, and a sense of proportion, during the tough weeks when exams dominate school routines. Nikki Plowan and Maddie Lock’s production of “The Canterbury Tales” certainly helped its audience in both these respects – and it was enjoyed hugely by three full houses in the Vivien Cox Theatre last week.
This ambitious and fast-moving show takes six of Chaucer’s famous pilgrim tales – well, seven if we include the famously abandoned Cook’s Tale – and moulds them into a slick and varied piece. Chaucer’s take on Aesop’s fable of the Cock and the Fox – told in the adapted version not by the Nun’s Priest but by the appropriately grand Prioress (played by Lili Mitchell) – is followed by the famously rude Miller’s Tale; then the Reeve, the Wife of Bath, the Franklin and the Pardoner take their turn in the tale-telling competition run, in this age of gender egalitarianism, by a female hostess, played with command by Elsa Hardcastle. The energetic commitment of the large team of performers was supported by some typically atmospheric and striking lighting and sound design from Mark Jenkins and his technical crew, with the skilled operators on the night being Benji Millar and Jack Durston. An episodic piece of this nature demands a great deal of the back-stage management crew and Will Harris and Hugo Bonsey definitely fulfilled these key tasks very well in this respect.
Billy Goodfellow and Harry Waters enjoyed presenting the cock and the fox respectively, and were ably supported by Autumn Brown as Pertelote and lots of “human farmyard animals”. Their impact was very much enhanced by some very striking visual effects, especially in terms of the masks they wore: and this first story was told with pace and clarity.
The romp with which the drunken Miller regales the pilgrim-company was only slightly censored from the original, and still provided opportunities for pantomime and bold caricature from the dim carpenter John (played by Archie Collins); the Oxford scholar and con-man Nicholas (David O’Connell); the frank and forward carpenter’s wife Alison (Tabz Francis); and the precious Absalom – a role doubled by Ted Walliker who also gave us a memorable exposition of the Miller himself. Skilful staging with the three barrels and the window–frame enabled the story to come hilariously to life.
In the 14th century original it is the Reeve (played with an appropriate sense of bitterness and resentment by Jack Collins) who offers a riposte to the Miller, insulted about apparently disparaging references to his own background as a carpenter. So he shifts the scene from Oxford to Cambridge, and this time shows Simkin the miller (Oli Haller) on the receiving end from Allain the scholar (Max St John). The competition between the two men as to who can more effectively swindle the other shows Simkin’s wife and daughter (Natalie Gillot and Bea St Pier) caught up in some entertaining and fast-paced farmyard frolics.
The second half of the performance began with a very strong performance as the Wife of Bath by Tabz Francis. Chaucer’s wife is famously more interested in herself than her tale and this emerged clearly through the authority with which the role was played. Again some very effective costuming and masking from Fiona Lockton contributed to the moment where Chaucer’s Loathly Lady – in the modern version an ugly old woman – is transformed into the beautiful bride for the reformed philandering knight played by Zaid Muallah.
The Franklin (Billy Goodfellow) offered a tale giving a different female perspective on marriage from the Wife of Bath’s. This story provided an aptly-placed atmospheric contrast to what had come before, changing the mood by providing a serious insight into wifely fidelity on the part of Dorigen (Autumn Brown), who remains faithful to her husband Averagus (Harry Waters), despite the approaches of the lovelorn Aurelius (Oli Clift). They were ably supported by a strong cast including Molly Herbert as Joanne and by the comic involvement of Marcus Isherwood’s Astronomer. The very imaginative staging of the sequence with the disappearance of the black rocks off the coast of Brittany provided a very powerful moment; and the emotional effect was enhanced by some very impressive singing of their own composition from Reuben Gray (on keyboard too) and Tabz Francis.
The production then concluded with an adaptation of Chaucer’s Christian allegory on greed and death in the form of the tale told by the Pardoner (Freddie Coates). The three rioters – Reuben Gray, Elsa Hardcastle and Max McLay – are destroyed by their own greed, whilst Daisy Roberts provided a very gothic and memorable personification of Death: an appropriately thought-provoking piece with which to conclude the show.
The whole evening presented plenty of younger pupils with the opportunity of their first experience on stage at Cranleigh: it is clear from the talent, energy and enthusiasm on show that, in many cases, it will be the first of many such experiences – and congratulations to the whole team for raising our spirits so much at an anxious time of the school year.
Oh yes…and then the Cook – very humorously and cleverly presented in the script as wanting to talk but assailed by self-doubt and finally fainting once she started her tale. Millie Glaister was very striking in the role and she, like critics over the years, must have been wondering what tale Chaucer really would have given her if he’d properly had time to finish his most ambitious project!