Review: Two Planks and a Passion - York Theatre Royal

York Theatre Royal’s production of Two Planks and a Passion centres more on the largely non-professional cast that bring it to life than it does the story they are telling.  That is not a criticism nor is to belittle Anthony Minghella’s script which is both extremely witty and clever, but this is all about a local community (or should that be the big society?) and how they come together despite the odd difference along the way.

Art and real life mirror each other as the company, the majority of whom are York citizens readying themselves for next year’s Mystery Plays, take the audience back to 1392 where the city’s residents are in the final stages of preparation before staging their own enactments of the traditional plays.

Discussions of lack of funds in hard times are quickly quietened when King Richard III, Queen Anne and the Earl of Oxford escaping from London arrive in town. Simple pride in their plays is replaced with one-upmanship and greedy ambition as the guild masters try to impress the visitors with lavish productions and gifts (which are mainly their own beds!). But do the blue-blooded trio really care or do they see the actions of these commoners more as a source of amusement?

There are many references that could be as equally at home in 2011 as in 1392.  From debates on who should fund the Arts to two squabbling guilds that can easily be compared to modern day political parties. But this particular production is not really about subtexts – it is about people.

Only 3 of the cast, which numbers around 30 each night (made up of 2 teams that alternate), are trained professionals. It is interesting that these 3 are cast in the roles of the nobility – possibly to give a more refined performance in comparison to the more naturally raw performances of the commoners.

It is to the credit of the rest of the cast though that the professionals do not stick out like sore thumbs.  This is not a show about 1 or 2 characters, this is a true ensemble piece where everyone has their part to play.   The production is punctuated from start to finish with wonderfully bright performances that contrast with the more subdued tones of the costume and set design.

The tightness of the in-the-round staging adds more to the atmosphere, heightening the sense of hustle and bustle during crowd scenes.  The design is simple and unfussy as not to over clutter proceedings, though there is clever use of a number of tricks that the theatre’s temporary stage has afforded the creative team. Original music too is used to good effect.

This highly entertaining production has passion running throughout – as for the planks, fortunately there is not a wooden performance in sight - and the city of York can be rightly proud of its theatre and its community.

Two Planks and a Passion continues at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 16 July 2011.

Review by James Eaglesfield