The Popular Mechanicals

The Popular Mechanicals
By Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare and Tony Taylor. State Theatre Company SA. Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. November 6-28, 2015.

Many theatre companies promote their comedies as ‘hilarious’, but the reality can often struggle to live up to the hype. I discovered something on opening night of State Theatre SA’s TRULY hilarious production of The Popular Mechanicals - it’s possible to laugh so long and so loud that the back of your head hurts, not to mention your ribs!

Monty Python eat your heart out; what a hoot this show is.

Evolving in the 1980’s from a gradual genesis of ideas, standup and physical comedy, together with sketch and songwriting, the Tudor vaudeville revue that is The Popular Mechanicals was written by Keith Robinson and Tony Taylor. There was also not a little posthumous input from The Bard himself. STC’s production is directed by Sarah Giles from the original direction by Geoffrey Rush.

Narrated like a fairytale (one peppered with plenty of rude bits, mind), the story is set in ‘pre-sanitation’ Tudor times. Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream  become the stereotype of amateur actors as they rehearse The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, in the hope their little thespian troupe will be chosen to perform in front of the recently married royal couple.

Things go bottoms-up one night during a bizarre and hysterically funny outdoor rehearsal. The troupe’s only option now is to rehearse a replacement performance piece they call…er…‘That’.  And what a piece of work ‘That’ is.

Proclaiming their rehearsal room is so good it even has an urn, the bumbling thespians create mayhem on the rear-curtained and trapdoor-filled stage and on its rehearsal hall surrounds, where a drum kit, plastic chairs, a sewing machine, phones, a table full of props and other items fill the room.

The cast is superb, with the six actors clearly relishing every funny little jig, fart joke, song and sight gag as much as the audience does. Gender reversal abounds, helped by fantastic costumes, which are amusingly and authentically Tudor; doublets and tights, over-the-top-wigs, ruffles…you get the picture.

Tall and lanky, Charles Mayer plays two roles. He is lead actor Bottom, but is particularly hilarious as inebriated ‘professional actor’ Mowldie. Mayer drapes his long legs and rib-tickling comedic talent over the set, whether scurrying about as bumbling Bottom or creating Mowldie’s pompous affectation of ‘superior’ acting talent. A screamingly funny highlight of the night is Mowldie’s secretive and drawn-out sculling directly from a cask of red wine.

Amber McMahon as Snug is deliciously naughty, with her Tudor ruff and little black moustache. Lori Bell, as Tom Snout, is also wonderful, especially in Tom’s eye-watering and memorable rendition of a cracked wall through which lovers kiss. Julie Forsyth is absolutely brilliant and delightfully endearing as Robin Starveling. Her portrayal of Robin playing ‘the moon’ brings the house down.

It’s very difficult to be the straight man and still be funny, but Rory Walker is hilarious as the troupe’s theatrical director Peter Quince. Walker’s comic timing is superb and his expressions are sublime. Tim Overton rounds out a terrific ensemble and is wonderful as Francis Flute.

Back to my ribs and that ‘laugh headache’. Just when I thought I couldn’t laugh any harder, out came the rubber chickens. Gasp!

Like your average theatre company’s press release, I think I might have over-used the word ‘hilarious’ in this review too, but it’s impossible not to.

By the way, you don’t have to be a thespian to love this show. Be prepared for sore ribs, but also a fantastic night of laughs when you head off to see The Popular Mechanicals. I give it 5 rubber chooks out of 5.

Great way to round out a fine 2015 season, State Theatre Company SA; bravo.

Lesley Reed

Images: (top) Julie Forsyth, Charles Mayer, Lori Bell, Tim Overton, Amber McMahon and Rory Walker & (lower) Lori Bell in The Popular Mechanicals ©Shane Reid. 

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