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Henry the Fifth – Unicorn Theatre, London

Writer: Ignace Cornelissen, inspired by William Shakespeare’s Henry V

Director: Ellen McDougall

Reviewer: Bernie Byrnes


henrythefifthIt seems that family theatre is under increasing pressure to offer bigger and bigger sets and more and more elaborate gimmicks as they struggle to keep the attention of a generation of youngsters raised on CGI and computer games. It was refreshing, therefore, to see the Unicorn has opted instead for a return to classic storytelling supported by a few well-chosen props in its current production Henry the Fifth.

The play tells the story of King Henry who, finding his English coffers empty, decides to invade France. A long and difficult battle ensues, ending with Katherine being crowned Queen.

The piece is surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare’s classic text Henry V despite being an hour long and rendered into modern language. They hit all the well-known speeches and plot points, which appear here as delightful, child-friendly and highly amusing episodes. This is more than a simple précis though and works on multiple levels in its own right. From the outset it is clear that the audience is in safe hands.

The cast of four turn in engaging, likeable performances and are equally matched in skill, comic timing and affability. Shane Zaza’s plays Henry as a charming petulant boy, more mischief than majesty. Rhys Rusbatch lolls and struts about the stage looking every inch a teen idol, while Abdul Salis provides a firm but gentle hand, guiding the audience in his rôle as Narrator. Hannah Boyde (who also shone in the critically acclaimed Mess) is a standout, not only because she is the only girl but also because she shows impressive versatility and stage presence.

Ignace Cornelissen’s text, translated by Purni Morell, is pleasingly pun-riddled. The development of pace and action is expertly pitched with just the right amount of repetition on the important points. Alison de Burgh’s beautiful fight choreography creates such an exciting mix of threat and play that half the boys in the audience were on their feet chanting at this compelling recreation of a school-yard fight. The childishness of the final showdown between France and England brings the pointlessness of war into unmistakable focus.

Ellen McDougall’s direction is intelligent and impressive, admirably supported by James Button’s magical design and David W Kidd’s beautiful lighting. Without a doubt though, the balloons are the star of this show.

If this all makes the play sound somber or dry it isn’t and therein lies a shortcoming with this production. The piece could have been emotionally braver and darker. Henry’s speech about the responsibility of the crown is delivered with the same frothy lightness as the rest of the action. That said, the romance is well-handled and age appropriate for the characters and audience alike. Everything about this production is simple, effective, clever and entertaining. It was clearly well received and a hit with adults and young people alike. It’s a big ask to keep the attention of a young audience for an hour but this production manages it expertly. In fact the last word should probably go to a nine-year old boy who was moved at one point to get to his feet and shout loudly “this is so cool”.

Runs until 16th November

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