The Canterbury Tales

Brendan Deeds reviews the latest production from Belfast's Bruiser Theatre Company

Bruiser Theatre Company produce high-octane drama that pulses and throbs with a fervid physicality. The company, celebrating its 10th birthday this year, has given their unique treatment to characters as varied as Faustus, Oberon and Adrian Mole. 

But it's the characters in their latest production, The Canterbury Tales, which are amongst the most captivating you’re likely to see on the NI stage this year.

Geoffrey Chaucer's masterpiece, chronicling the journey of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, was filled with bawdy humour, satirical sideswipes at public figures and more innuendo than you could shake a male chicken at.

Working from a script adapted by Martin Riley, Bruiser’s play seeks to discover if Chaucer’s characters can still delight and shock with their wonderful tales.

The play introduces us to four 14th century alchemists who hope to ressurect the late bard with the help of an elixir.

In a further attempt to awaken him, the alchemists act out five of his most popular tales: the Wife of Bath‘s Tale, the Pardoner‘s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, the Nuns' Priest's Tale, the Knight’s Tale.

In doing so, Bruiser’s gifted cast, under the skilful direction of Lisa May, work a special kind of alchemy all of their own.

Patrick J O’Reilly, from RedLemon Productions, delivers a powerful comic performance again and again in the production. 

He delightfully camps it up as Chaucer’s gelding-like Pardoner, his Fox is a dastardly creation and his performance as the lusty lodger, Nicholas, is the comic highlight of the show.

Similarly, Niamh Shaw delivers a great comic turn as the Wife of Bath and gives Chaucer’s feisty femme fatale enough scowling vigour to stop a raging bull.

Sarah Lyle, who brought great depth to her deeply affecting performance as Emma in Tinderbox’s Girls and Dolls, shows she can bring the same skill to comedy.

Her croon delights audiences as she repulses Matt McArdle’s chauvinist Knight. The way Lyle’s voice mimiced Barbara Winsor here was a wonderful touch.

As the Miller’s lustful bride, the impossibly pretty actress made a tempting offer to the lodger, but when she bounded into the audience and leapt onto the lap of a lucky punter, she gave a whole new meaning to the phrase physical theatre.

While the enthusiasm, energy and talent of  this play’s cast is impressive, there is none of Chaucer’s sharp satirical bite. Chaucer satirised the religious and political movements of the 14th century and challenged its social, sexual and literary conventions.This is Chaucer-lite, but it is thoroughly enjoyable all the same.

Here the tales are told unabashedly for laughs. When I saw this production, the players had the house in fits of laughter throughout the performance.

Lisa May has found a play which suits Bruiser's style and inventiveness, requiring the audience to add their own imagination to make the alchemy work. The cast work at a breathtaking pace with typical Bruiser athletics, continually drawing the audience into their world.

This is a furiously funny and high-octane production. Ladies and Gentlemen, make your own pilgrimage to wherever this play is showing.

Once there, sit tight, fasten your seatbelts and wait for the magic and the mayhem.

The Canterbury Tales runs from March 20 - 27 at the Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast, then tours until April 23