Review: The Tempest

Lara Moran 25 October 2019
Image credit: Anna Gawedzka

Given limited prop budgets and amateur actors, it’s easy for student theatre to slip into tedium, but when it succeeds it creates a magic difficult to find anywhere else in Cambridge.

As Prospero (played by Kay Benson) delivers his final monologue to the audience, the light catches his subtly shimmering eyeshadow and gleaming eyes on the brink of tearfulness – the process of forgiveness can be slow, but when it is finally achieved, it is a thing of beauty and tenderness. Director Ell Aitken realises that it is in these moments that student theatre can shine, and the last quarter of their production of The Tempest casts a spell on the audience.

The Tempest opens on a ship that is wrecked in the midst of a storm, and goes on to follow its passengers as they are stranded on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. The production achieves a compelling transition from sea to land, aided by the creative use of a tarp and Em Jones’ clever lighting and sound design. Although it takes the performance a little while to pick up after this introductory madness, once the groundwork for the unfolding plot has been laid, the audience is soon immersed in the story.

The storm has been magically engineered by Prospero and his servant spirit, Ariel, a character who stands out in an enchanting portrayal by Roma Ellis.

While Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, seeks revenge on the people who usurped him twelve years ago, the island native Caliban (Ayesha Baloch) sees this as an opportunity to rid himself of Prospero’s tyrannical rule with the help of the stranded king’s jester and butler. Though this subplot is largely one of comic relief (Ryan Morgan and Niamh Gray provide many laugh-out-loud moments as Trinculo and Stefano), Caliban’s portrayal has been handled with care and attention, and his truly affecting struggle rises above the comedy. Meanwhile Prospero’s daughter Miranda, played with captivating naivete by Molly Gearen, falls for the King’s blandly charming nephew, Ferdinand (Esme Friel).

“The show manages to juggle its interweaving plotlines until they converge in a well-executed final act…”

The show manages to juggle its interweaving plotlines until they converge in a well-executed final act. A live musical ensemble complements many of the play’s most bittersweet moments, but while these are subtly powerful when they succeed, they just as often fail to provide the appropriate emotional depth. Except for occasional moments when projection slips into straight-up shouting, the cast offsets this with fresh and earnest performances.

With the apparent monopoly the ADC and Corpus Playroom have on Cambridge Theatre, it is sometimes easy for non-thespians to forget that we live in a city with an abnormally high theatre to resident ratio.

Aitken’s production of The Tempest at Downing’s Howard Theatre is a reminder that we are not allowed to overlook the thoughtful and moving productions being put on at other venues in the city. Characterised by its intimate scale and lack of pretension, the show is sure to provide its audience with a delightful experience that is well worth the price of admission.

5 stars.