Review: Billy Shakes at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre

Monday 23rd July 2019 at the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre Pop Up, York.


Wrongsemble are introducing youngsters to the bard and in their production the great William Shakespeare is imagined as his younger self (going by the name of Billy Shakes, naturally). Their take on young Billy is a thoroughly entertaining whirling bundle of energy – in Billy Shakes: Wonder Boy, there’s plenty of music, quick changes and lots of famous quotes thrown in to offer up a whole lot of fun for 4-and-up-year-olds…

Director and Writer Elvi Piper demonstrates love and appreciation of both Shakespeare and the craft of writing in this show. It’s a production which celebrates the power of potential and the importance of challenging yourself to do and be more. Essentially, Billy as a child is bored of doing the same darn thing every single day (humpf!) until he finds the most exciting thing a boy could find to do…writing stories! Encouraged by everyone he meets to tell his tales, the boy who grumbles becomes the wonder boy who pulls stories out of his quill at lightening speed as the cast scramble to perform miniature snippets alongside the ever-in-motion youngster.

Victoria Brazier, Harri Pitches and Alyce Liburd are a wonderful and versatile company, bringing numerous characters from the mind of the wonderboy to life along with various other quirky roles to move the narrative along with pace and great enthusiasm. All three are top notch entertainers and not one out-performs another. The children of the audience at this particular show were clearly very taken with our lively and charismatic entertainers and found Pitches’ silliness infectious as he played out various melodramatic deaths Horrible Histories style. There’s a little audience participation by way of seeking advice and a little collaborative poo-pooing of a selfish actor to encourage him off the stage in order to welcome someone far more impressive: our boy Billy.

Wrongsemble do well to include various famous lines from across the Shakespeare Canon but it does have to be said that the choices are not always child-friendly; not in the sense that they are selecting the bawdy and tawdry but in that they do lump too many together at one particular point and it’s easy to lose a sense of the narrative being told and in another case, the selections are too convoluted. A section from Lady M’s sleepwalking glory scene being one particular example, it’s beautifully acted, but not necessarily the best choice for all.

Of course one can argue that every kid’s show should feature a little something for the grown-ups over the heads of the children, but that’s a gamble I’m not fully a fan of when it comes to risking the engagement and clarity for the children. But were the children perturbed here? Not at all, so although I’m not convinced the gamble pays off, they certainly don’t pay a price for it – the production hurtles onwards and no sooner do the complex quotes depart the air than a comically petulant exchange between bickering characters arrives to capture giggles once more.

What I particularly love about Wrongsemble’s work is threefold; the fact that they create instant fun with their schtick as ‘unprepared’ actors to begin; their ambitious approach to children’s theatre and their wonderful use of music which is always beautifully conceived and performed (Musical Director: Rosie Fox). The cast have lovely voices and the music ranges from sweet vocalising to capture the atmosphere of magical lands to catchy anthems about believing in yourself and digging deeper to find your calling. As soon as Brazier picks up her flute and her comrades reach for simple percussion instruments to accompany, the promise of light-hearted fun lingers in the air as they deliver a quality segue into the next scene. It’s well crafted, quality entertainment for all the family and it’s well worth seeing.

Billy Shakes: Wonder Boy! Plays at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre Pop Up in York until August 24th 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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