Review: The Comedy of Errors, Barbican Theatre ★★★★★

Putting the word ‘comedy’ in the title of a play sets high expectations, and not expectations that Shakespeare’s early work The Comedy of Errors has always lived up to. However, in this Royal Shakespeare Company production, director Phillip Breen has created a comic masterpiece – a hilarious and riotous affair.

The play is based on a simple premise; two sets of identical twins are separated shortly following their birth, with one of each set living as servant and master in two different countries, Syracuse and Ephesus. Both masters are named Antipholus and both sevants named Dromio. When Antipholus of Syracuse (Guy Lewis) and Dromio of Syracuse (Jonathan Broadbent) arrive in Ephesus they are routinely mistaken as their brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus (Rowan Polonski) and Dromio of Ephesus (Greg Haiste), with farcical mayhem ensuing. Simple, right?

Naomi Sheldon as Adrianna. Photo: Pete Le May.

And it is farcical, with Breen dialling the slapstick up to eleven. As Dromio of Syracuse ponders that “there’s no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature,” a waiter’s toupee becomes dislodged and the bald puns becoming more and more pertinent. Even the jokes that are less likely to play well to a modern audience are brought back from the brink. “Oh come on, the jokes are 400 years old – help me out here!” begs Dromio of Syracuse, breaking the fourth wall and stealing a laugh from the audience, as Antipholus and Dromio make fat jokes that need rescued from the past.

There are fantastic performances across the cast. Lewis and Broadbent naturally have the plump roles here, making the most of their alien presence – Lewis with a permanent air of (mostly) happy bewilderment and Broadbent playing his Dromio as something of an 80’s alt-comedy film star. Broadbent and Haiste also perfectly deliver an incredibly touching reunion between the much maligned brothers who have finally found true companionship.

Jonathan Broadbent and Guy Lewis. Photo: Pete Le May

The standout performer, however, is Naomi Sheldon who delivers a masterful performance as Adrianna, the heavily pregnant wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. She is at one moment wild-eyed with rage, the next sultry and seductive (albeit towards the wrong Antipholus), the next bemused, and then back to rage again. Her hint of what may be to come as she casts her real husband a knowing glance at the play’s end suggests that not everything will be forgiven.

Some may argue that Breen’s direction is overplayed, that there’s too much a farce, or that it could have been more subtle – but why should it be any different when it’s so much fun like this?

The Comedy of Errors is at the Barbican Theatre until 31 December.