Review: The Apothecary – Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

One of the frustrations with Shakespeare is, despite his prodigious output, there are often scenes and characters we fleetingly see in his works that we yearn to hear more about. Vividly drawn sketches who appear as mere supports to his better known characters but whom one feels have a fascinating back-story of their own to tell.

In Romeo and Juliet, we are offered a brief but fascinating glimpse into the world of the Apothecary, the man who provides the fatal poison that ends the tragic couple’s lives.

What drives a man who deals in poisons and potions? For a man who claims to be able to cure demons, what sort of demons is he battling himself?

That is the premise for the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds Summer School’s latest production. Rehearsed over just a two week period, The Apothecary steps inside the dark and shadowy world of the chemist shop and the equally dark mind of the practitioner himself.

With the tables turned, the warring Montague’s and Capulet’s feature as mere footnotes in this tale, a young Romeo opens the show requesting the fateful potion while the Friar bookends the piece with news of his intervention in the tragic tale. However, apart from these two scenes, the well-known Shakespeare tale doesn’t feature. Instead, we are offered a stream of vignettes centred around visitors to the shop and, while these scenes do provide the large cast with ample opportunity to demonstrate a variety of theatrical styles and characters, it does lack narrative cohesion.

We get a hint that the Apothecary is suffering from a crisis of confidence, perhaps based on his troubled childhood, but we never fully get to understand why or what the interaction with a variety of customers is supposed to tell us.

There are some nice cameos within the piece. A scene with a young girl who talks incessantly to the chagrin of her mother is well performed (Eve Chancellor and Hayley Murrow), while a scene with a band of strolling players managed to overcome a wardrobe malfunction with skill and professionalism.

As the title character Maylott Robinson develops from a quiet start into an assured performance, though one that never fully reveals all the characters depths.

Becca Gibbs and Paul Golynia’s set provide a wonderfully evocative playground for the cast, full of shady nooks and crannies for various sprites and demons to make surprise entrances.

The mix of devised work coupled with Sally Waters and Lynn Whitehead’s script isn’t always a comfortable marriage with the transition between styles not always resolved in the short rehearsal process.

The young company should, however, be applauded for staging such a complex show in such a short period. The skills learnt in having to work to such a short deadline will be invaluable both inside and outside theatre and at the end of the day there’s no stronger reason than that for such projects.

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