First of all, there were no handmade puppets. Unless you count the prop mop, which doubled as a lady. Still, the Fine Chisel gentlemen, armed with stringed instruments, beer and an assortment of objects from a cheap party favours store, staged a Shakespearian mash-up even Branagh would envy. From Henry IV to The Merry Wives of Windsor you’d have to be a Mastermind champ to pinpoint which dialogue came from where; but half the fun is watching the pieced-together material form a cohesive narrative full of cross-dressing, white van men and silly hats.
The performance was a bit like arts and crafts time in primary school, where debasing the Mona Lisa with macaroni and glue is considered an acceptable way to enjoy art. She still smiles in this version, but the new materials render her bizarre and irreverent, playful and accessible. As an audience we happily gathered our ‘pens, poking sticks of steel’ (party poppers) to go once more unto the breach; we bombarded a boisterous Falstaff with silly string and the spritzer of life and had a joyous time interacting with the players in an Elizabethan, but uniquely Brightonian way.
Falstaff was a particular treat, full of his own nonsense with a pleasing voice to boot. His was a standout talent – which can boost an ensemble piece, but also serve as a measuring stick to highlight weaker players. The Hurly Burly was a delightful venue, but noise from the busy roads outside and the busier children playing in the garden detracted from the voices within the tent. This was particularly noticeable with the primary instrumentalists, who seemed to find it difficult to engage with the acting and singing with the same enthusiasm of Prince Hal and Falstaff, sinking some of the harmonies. I felt their discomfort in places, but luckily, the two main characters encouraged hearty laughter both at and with them.
There are phrases in Shakespeare’s work that make even professorial-types snicker like twelve-year-old boys; one of these hand-in-front-of-mouth moments was during the last song with words from Antony and Cleopatra, where we were encouraged to repeat ‘Cup us’, bringing to mind the Two Ronnie’s sketch where ‘So doff...’ means something else entirely. I didn’t know whether to gird my loins or burst out laughing and I suspect the gentlemen were having a quiet laugh at us squirming in our seats. In any case, most of us left smiling.