‘Two Gents’ was BackBreak Theatre’s second ever show, first full-scale performance, and the first production to use Canal Mills as an Arts venue. The hype surrounding the piece would have been a lot for any independent company to live up to, but ‘Two Gents’, a 1980’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, certainly met (if not exceeded) expectations.
The company claim that their ethos is to collectively “create entertaining theatre without pretensions” – and entertainment was certainly the dominant factor in this production. In a play about young people, their friendships and their love affairs, the new company, a group of thirteen Leeds students, intertwined the traditional Shakespearean prose with cross-dressing and the popular sixteenth-century gag of using a comical dog (here played worryingly well by George Howard) with a nostaligic 80s soundtracks, double-denim, turquoise shell-suits, fixie bikes, ghetto blasters and, almost central to the performance, an old skip. Although used ingeniously at first as a multi-purposeful prop, unfortunately the skip’s novelty soon wore off as the actors grew more excited about its many uses than the audience.
The beautifully lit, unnervingly spacious and highly atmospheric venue pre-empted an evening of fun, upbeat and stimulating performance. Even the below-freezing temperature, which the company catered for by issuing blankets to cold bums-on-seats, added to the all-inclusive feel that had the audience alert and buzzing. Physical movement was outstanding throughout, and the high levels of energy drove a piece that may otherwise have been a little slow on its feet.
Hugh Coles and Joseph Kerridge both enjoyed particularly notable performances as the two ‘teenage’ protagonists, soppy Proteus and noble Valentine, a fickle friendship summed up by their chosen tagline: ‘when in love, what is friend?’. The sulky teenage element was certainly carried forward by Siobhan Leadbetter’s Julia – Shakespeare does not cater for female roles brilliantly in this play, but even so, there could have been a little more reactivity or variation in the portrayal of two pretty protagonists. However, both Alanna Flynn and Victoria Burgess were brilliant in their multi-rolling as servants and masters.
All in all, it was an exceptionally exciting evening, and any company that can bring that level of originality, wit and general good fun to Shakespeare in this century deserves to be highly applauded.