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Review of Shaxpeare's Box performed by The Masque Theatre at St Peter and St Paul Church, Northampton

Seemingly ever since I have found theatre, Mr William Shakespeare has had some sort of anniversary and 2016 is no different, this time the anniversary is his death. Now while I admire the significant impact that the bard has had on theatre, I concur with a line that the character of Sue Delve says in Shaxpeare's Box, in that I pretty much forgot about him after GSCE.

Well that was until I found myself in the last couple of years at many of his plays, through supporting the performing groups rather than my need to see the plays in question. This is therefore probably why Shaxpeare's Box will possibly be my favourite Shakespeare influenced play this year (and may remain for some time), as its not one of his plays. There is also a love through Brian Wright's magnificent script that went some way to give to me a greater understanding of his work than some pompous academic might relay.

Set in modern day Northampton it tells the tale of a discovery of a mysterious box in the roof of the Abington Manor (now the park museum) which just so happens to have on it the family crest of a certain Shakespeare family. This of course is not some dramatic flight of fancy as the bards granddaughter lived and died at the manor, so this whole premise is very acceptable. Also highly believable are the coven of council officers who swiftly swoop upon the box and start counting the pounds from the sale before the box has lost its three hundred years of dust. This coven while "purely fictitious" smack of everything you could expert of council office and two in particular, while masquerading as working for the people of Northampton are in fact doing anything but and in it for a fast buck.

Playing these four council staff and for me all giving the best performances I have seen from them are Fraser Haines (Derrick Bane), Rosie Chapman (Win Capper), April Pardoe (Jessie Reed) and Owen Warr (Frank Todd). Fraser is particularly impressive as the cold manipulative Bane. Playing a character who may feel very familiar to those residents of Northampton who have kept up with their politics, although of course he is I repeat "purely fictitious". It was also a personal pleasure to see Owen again, strong and solid and playing his well meaning councillor with aplomb.

As the ultimate villain of the piece, Ian Spiby excelled as antiques dealer Vernon Slynn. As much as Bane was a piece of work, Ian made Vernon a very much bigger piece of work, not only dastardly, but also quite a creepy character. It was however totally in keeping with the outrageous comedic nature of the piece. I also absolutely loved Masque newcomer Holly Lowe as Sue Delve, the innocent and keen to please development officer. Desperate to keep the job, which wrongfully was at odds with doing the right thing. It was a playful performance and worked excellently with her partner in crime Harry Grace (played with earnestness by Mark Farey). However once again for the Masque shows, this was a solid cast performance across the board.

Brian Wright's script was constantly entertaining and very knowledgeable of the town and coupled with his very clever direction in the church area made it a high point for the Masque shows I have seen. A particular scene high point was that superb public meeting, where the cast effortlessly merged into the audience and heckled and jostled. I have been to a couple of meetings like that myself and indeed had characters like Mr Spiby's (who I happily nurged up to allow room for) sitting next to me.

The play itself spectacularly ends in a farce situation, but also leaves you thinking not only a tad more about Shakespeare, but also about all those official council people who never tire of telling you they truly are doing the best thing for the public.

Tech wise this was also the most complicated I have seen, not least dealing with the pre-recorded work of Lesley Joseph as the voice of Lady Elizabeth. Getting that all timed perfectly with sound and lighting must certainly have been a challenge, so that hidden crew gets equal applause to the one that the audience sees.

So all in all the is comic chaos of the highest order with a historical edge and devilish political maneuverings and I therefore suggest that you to that church on time to see it. Otherwise it will all very much be alas, alack.


Performance reviewed: 9th January, 2016 at St Peter and St Paul Church, Northampton.

Shaxpeare's Box is performed by the Masque Theatre until Saturday 16th,2016. Details of the Masque Theatre can be found at http://www.masquetheatre.co.uk/

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