The Tempest review – Michael Pennington's mighty magician lends spark

This production brings its enchantments but one enthralling moment on its first night comes after Michael Pennington’s Prospero takes his bows, with a tribute to Stephen Sondheim from the theatre’s artistic director, Tom Littler. Sondheim supported this postage-stamp sized space from the start, as far back as 1994, he tells us, and when Littler’s revival of Saturday Night transferred to the West End in 2009, Sondheim visited every actor’s dressing room before delivering his notes on the show, which “was the closest thing to receiving notes from God”.

Under Littler’s direction, the magic spark in this production lies largely in Pennington’s Prospero, although Whitney Kehinde is bewitching as Ariel, too, bringing a wide-eyed, naughty energy and archness. Pennington makes for a physically wizened but still mighty magician and displaced duke. His voice carries a storm as he speaks of his usurping brother, Antonio (Richard Derrington) but dips to tenderness as father to Miranda (Rachel Pickup, barefoot, with a touch of Robinson Crusoe) and then hardens to steel as the ruthlessly colonising sorcerer who holds this island in enslavement. Pennington reads from a script throughout but, rather incredibly, this does not take away from his performance although we wish for more eye contact.

Caliban (Tam Williams), streaked with mud, blood and scars, does not quite have enough dark charisma, and is sometimes hard to understand beneath his gimp-like mask, but Ariel sings, bedazzles and stokes the comedy that the production places at its fore. The drunken antics of Trinculo (Peter Bramhill) and Stephano (Richard Derrington, doubling up) amuse while Ferdinand (Williams, doubling up) and Miranda’s starry-eyed love carries its own humour but it is slightly too gentle, slow in pace, and not all of the physical comedy lands.

Several shipwrecked characters wear pyjamas, dressing gowns or smoking jackets – a nod to a play that could be a somnambulist’s dream. But others wear suits and top hats and this inconsistency in Neil Irish and Anett Black’s costumes, however deliberate, gives the production a motley, incohesive spirit that feels like a game of dress-up in which some characters are only half-dressed.

The pyrotechnics that sometimes augment the illusion and magic in this short and most fantastical of Shakespeare’s plays are bypassed here for something more old-fashioned. This has the feel of a masque play with a homemade box of tricks, from a miniature ship beached on the floor to a cloth sketch of an island, drawn across the back of the stage, which could be a bed-sheet.

Black and Irish’s set design uses the yellow and rust palette of a desert island with a diaphanous curtain that suggests a child’s game of make-believe. But it is Max Pappenheim’s clear and intimate sound design that best conjures an enchanted isle, with lapping waves of music, song and sound effects.

  • At Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 22 December.

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