Robert Tanitch reviews The Knight of the Burning Pestle at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London SE1
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is on the same site as Shakespeare’s Globe and is a replica of an indoor Jacobean playhouse, a beautiful, timbered, u-shaped theatre with a seated pit and two galleries. The performance is lit by six naked chandeliers with 72 candles.
Francis Beaumont’s comedy was not a success at its premiere in 1607. The production failed because the merchant class audience felt that the 23-year-old playwright was making fun of them, satirizing their bad behaviour when they were in a theatre and their bad taste in the sort of theatrical entertainment they liked.
I have seen The Knight of the Burning Pestle twice before and been bored to tears on both occasions. So Adele Thomas’s production was a very pleasant and welcome surprise. The play is actually funny. I have never known it so funny.
Two Jacobean playgoers, a grocer and his wife are sitting in the auditorium with the audience. They and we are meant to be seeing The London Merchant, a typical city comedy of the period.
Beaumont’s joke is that the grocer and his wife insist that their young apprentice should appear on stage in the role of a chivalric knight, who kills giants and rescues damsels. The pestle is the symbol of the grocer’s trade.
The merchant’s story and the knight’s story then run parallel and overlap. The merchant wants his daughter to marry a nincompoop rather than the man she loves. The actors are very funny and especially Dickon Tyrrell, who, as the nincompoop, has to deliver Beaumont’s burlesque of bad playwriting and terrible rhymes and does so with aplomb
There are constant verbal and physical interruptions by the grocer and his wife. The performances by Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn add considerably to the fun and are indeed absolutely crucial to the production’s success.
The comedy also works so well because it is being acted in a Jacobean playhouse. The intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the perfect venue for it and the actual experience of being in it and watching a play is a pleasure in its own right.