As a kid, I never understood why some Shakespeare plays are called 'comedies'; they always seemed so resolutely unfunny. I wish the Bristol Old Vic Student Ensemble had been on hand back then, because their Comedy of Errors is energetic, accessible, and above all entertaining. Billed as suitable for ages 3 and up, it's a lightly made-over version of the story, simple enough for the young ones to follow but with plenty of witty nuance for the grown-ups too.
Subtle, well-conceived adaptations explain and clarify the storyline, while a few judicious updates make the world of Shakespeare's Ephesus that bit easier to understand. The unfortunate Egeon's ransom is initially set at a "thousand pounds"; only once that concept is securely established does the more faithful "thousand marks" creep in. And while they do – despite protestations to the contrary – end up doing substantial tracts of dialogue 'in modern', these contemporary embellishments have a rhythm and a humour which sits well alongside the original prose.
Yet it's the physicality of the performance that impresses the most. This is a show filled with movement and flourish; the set is simple and the stage fairly small, but the story and the ensemble's imagination never feel constrained. The comedy is enhanced by oddball little details – watch out for the delightfully camp talking furniture – and for all that this is notionally a student company, there's undoubted professional-level skill on display. A few of the visual gags rely on split-second timing, and on the day I attended, each and every one of them was delivered with flawless aplomb.
It feels a shame to pick out individuals from such a tight ensemble, but I did especially enjoy Oscar Porter's interpretation of the two Dromios – one of them posh and oh-so cool, the other more shady and streetwise. Rosie Taylor-Ritson deserves mention too for her Courtesan, a family-friendly Pied Piper figure who shamelessly bewitches all she meets. But these are, I must stress, merely my personal highlights among a uniformly likeable and multi-talented cast.
Maybe they lose some momentum now and then, and one or two of the jokes don't land as cleanly as they'd hoped – but the audible enthusiasm of the kids on the front row was enough to trump any jaded sense of perfectionism. This Comedy of Errors is a true delight: effervescent and creative, respectful of the essence of Shakespeare's text without being overly beholden to it. If you've got young ones to bring along, it's hard to imagine a better introduction to Bardic comedy. And if you haven't – well, sneak in anyway. There's plenty here for every generation to enjoy.