This Is Cabaret rating ★★★★☆

To beer or not to beer?  That’s really not the question when it comes to Magnificent Bastard’s raucous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For this is Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare – and that means the drink’s the thing.

The idea is so simple even Bottom could grasp it. A cast of five perform Shakespeare’s comedy entirely seriously – except one of them is more King Lairy than King Lear. At the beginning of the show it’s revealed how much the chosen drunk for tonight’s performance has downed in the four hours proceeding it. As a committed journalist the two beers, one gin and tonic and quarter of a litre of vodka consumed didn’t seem like much to yours truly – but it was soon made clear that that wasn’t the case for our blottoed Lysander (Saul Marron).

The designated drunkard starts off a little flat and there’s a worry that the experience will be more like watching a pretend drunk than an actual one. Luckily, director and compere Lewis Ironside has a solution for this: at the start of the show a member of the audience is given a gong and another a horn. At any point during the performance, the duo can bang or toot their prospective instruments, and our poor Lysander has to down another pint of grog.

If it sounds like a student night played out for the audience’s amusement, that isn’t far off the mark– the atmosphere is rowdy and disorderly as audience members hoot and guffaw, whilst Lysander ad libs wildly off script. Ironside has done the right thing in keeping the production to a reasonably tight one hour in order to contain that feeling of spontaneity. It means that Bottom and his workmen’s side story from the Bard’s original script is mostly done away with – probably because there’s already enough farce as it is.

But is this one gimmick enough to make for compelling viewing? Scenes without the befuddled one do feel a little slower moving in comparison, but generally the cast do well in creating their own humorous takes on the script. Plus, with a different player selected each night to get totally Friar Tuck’d, audiences could also potentially experience a completely different performance each time – a rare feat for a play over four centuries old.

It seems fitting that Magnificient Bastard’s seven week run has started alongside the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing.  With the Bard’s love of bawdiness, illustrated in many of his works, this rude and inventive production feels like a breath of fresh air, yet one that equally pays homage to its original noisy Elizabethan beginnings at the Globe. And so, at the end of a chaotic hour, when the lights come up and the cast walk and stumble off in equal measures, you can be sure they exit, pursued by a beer.

 Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2H 7BX. 27th April – 11th June (No Sundays), 19:00pm. £18.50.

Image: Rah Petheridge