REVIEW: Light comedy offers a surprisingly moving tale about Shakespeare’s family

My Second Best Bed

My Second Best Bed

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My Second Best Bed by Barry Syder, Presented by Lights and Bushels, Park Barn, Horsham July 15

As anyone with an interest in theatre knows, it’s been 400 years since Shakespeare died. So far in 2016 this fact has been impossible to miss, as performers across the country pay tribute with music and drama.

Now it’s Lights and Bushels’ turn and they’ve come up with something a little different.

Rather than presenting a Shakespeare play, the Horsham-based group look into the Bard’s family.

My Second Best Bed is set in May 1616, and focuses on the playwright’s loved ones a couple of weeks after his death.

Before the play starts visitors are treated to some music from Emily Batchelor (violin) and Thea Elvin (cello). I’m not a classical fan so I’m not familiar with these Pachelbel, Vivaldi and Bach pieces. However, the duo play beautifully, offering an elegant introduction to the evening.

Anyway, at the beginning of the play Curate Dunstan (Tom Hounsham) arrives at New Place, the Shakespeare family residence, and meets the Bard’s eldest daughter Susanna Hall (Kathryn Attwood) and the younger one Judith Quiney (Emily Hale). He’s there to read the playwright’s will to the family and, as an ardent Shakespeare fanboy, he’s thrilled to perform this task. However, Dunstan is puzzled by what the Bard leaves his wife, Anne Hathaway (Gill Sutton).

Shakespeare simply wrote: “I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”

As writer Barry Syder points out, these words have led critics to conclude that the Bard didn’t like his spouse. This, Barry argues, couldn’t be further from the truth and My Second Best Bed acts as a dramatised defence of the relationship.

There’s not much conflict in this play or much at stake really. But that’s not to say it’s boring.

While not packed with gags, the tight script has a fun comic streak. The sisters bicker and gossip, the curate accidentally reveals his improper enthusiasm for alcohol and the funny lines get the correct reaction from the viewers.

The dialogue is all modern too, so we never strain to follow what’s happening. Picture a mild version of Blackadder, without the misanthropy, and you’ll get an idea of what this show offers.

However, despite the sharp comic skills of Tom Hounsham, Kathryn Attwood and Emily Hale, it’s the more serious moments from Gill Sutton as Anne that truly make the show memorable.

Offstage until the very end Anne’s eventual appearance is surprisingly sad, but this poignancy is needed for the audience to realise the truth.

Of course Shakespeare loved his wife, the play says.

Don’t presume to understand a 30-year marriage if you’ve only read one sentence on a will.

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