first night

The Canterbury Tales

Emma Pursey gets drawn into Hill College Theatre Company's latest offering at the Jimmy Knott Hall...


It’s difficult to review this as I would any other play, because, quite frankly, it was unlike any other play I’ve ever attended. The focus on audience participation was evident even before I entered the building; I was directed towards the “Annual Tale Telling Contest” by one of the suitably ridiculous tale tellers, and as one of the players showed me to my seat, speaking of her nerves and excitement about this year’s event, I realized that fully entering into the spirit of the evening was the best way to go about things…



“The Geoffrey Chaucer annual tale telling competition certainly hit its peak in its ninth year, with a splendid array of tales delighting those assembled. With acclaimed tale tellers such as Sarah Priest and an esteemed acting troupe including the likes of Callum Cheatle, the contest produced an atmosphere of excitement and intimacy. Keen Chaucerians present were delighted by the guest appearance of renowned scholar Dr Oliver Gregory Lynes (Ollie Lynes) of Canterbury University. And if the presence of regional champion tale-tellers, highly experienced actors and a geeky cardigan-wearing Chaucerian wasn’t enough to satisfy those present, there was also cake. As reviewer of the contest, I saw it as my duty to sample a great variety of the cake available, and I was most impressed.



The first of the tale tellers was Sir Charlie Knight (Charlie Cussons) with The Knight’s Tale, though Ned Miller (Ned French) insisted on recounting one of his Medieval Mucky Stories before the contest could properly begin, due to his tale of choice (The Miller’s Tale) being banned due to its crude content.  Indeed, his story served as the perfect warm-up act for Sir Charlie, who professed to be “honoured to be amongst such common people” whilst mingling with rabble. The taleitself was told eloquently and with great enthusiasm. Finn Dallas (Archie Dallas) and Callum Cheatle were superb as Palamon and Arcite, their lengthy combat scene proving particularly impressive. The sense of homosocial bonding (better known to Scrubs fans as “Guy Love”) really came through during Palamon’s death, which saw a suitably anguished performance from Lucy Cornell as the fair Emelye. Opening with Sir Charlie’s Tale was a good indication of the high standards that followers of this annual competition have come to expect.



Ned Miller’s second Medieval Mucky Story preceded the Reeve’s Tale, delighting the hoi polloi and shocking the slightly more respectable members of the crowd. Dr Lynes was particularly unimpressed, as was evident from his reaction as he stood up to introduce Kay Reeve (Kay Hetherington) who, oddly enough, proceeded to tell the much-loved Reeve’s Tale. The return of Dallas and Cheatle (this time as two stereotypical Cambridge students) had the crowd roaring with laughter. Between their cartoon-like skip, their brilliantly pretentious voices, and the fact that they kept their precious Trinity College scarves on whilst making passionate love to various characters, the duo demonstrated their superb ability to play such contrasting parts from the cousins of The Knight’s Tale. A hilarious bedroom scene which saw vertical love-making and accidental homosexuality was the highlight of this particular tale, a tale which was a strong candidate to win the contest outright.



Next came the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, with Sarah Priest (Sarah Watson) its teller. The versatile nature of the company really showed in this tale, as they all excelled in their portrayals of various farmyard animals. Indeed, it should be noted at this point that the pig gave a particularly impressive performance. The daft cockiness of  Chanticleer was brilliantly conveyed through Jonny Knowles’s  Elvis-like performance.



Further interjections from Ned Miller resulted in a considerable amount of sniggering from spectators as well as much eye rolling from Dr Lynes. Fortunately, however, the tone was raised considerably by Thomas Franklyn (Tom Spencer) who told the Franklin’s Tale. Ironically though, its most memorable feature came in the form of Ned Miller himself, who played a highly entertaining mystic.



The contest’s final official entry very nearly didn’t happen, with the typically unreliable “Steve” failing to arrive on time to play his part in the Pardoner’s Tale. Luckily, a spectator was coerced into filling in for the hapless Steve, and as such, the tale went ahead. The insertion of such modern ideas as chavs and plastic bags from Iceland truly suited this tale, and the performance of the “Avenging Band” suggested that Steve may well be out of a job…



Finally, Ned Miller had his way and was able to tell his final Medieval Mucky story- The Miller’s Tale. This lewd and licentious tale both and delighted those assembled, with its salacious themes and vulgar characters truly shining through in what was a superb portrayal of Chaucer’s most risqué story. Indeed, so well told and played out was this tale that Dr Lynes had little use for his clapometre; Ned Miller was the undisputed champion of this year’s contest.”




Though the “play within a play” concept is perhaps a little overdone, the Hill College Theatre Company’s production of The Canterbury Tales handled it with aplomb. The heavy reliance on improvisation and audience inclusion resulted in a sense of fun which transferred from the cast and production team the audience from the start. (Though it is difficult to ascertain exactly where and when the play began…) With nobody taking themselves or the play itself too seriously, the comic self-mocking nature of Chaucer’s great work really shone through. The character of Dr Lynes at one point asked the question on everyone’s lips- “What would Geoff think?” And though I am no expert on the psyche of this particular medieval writer, I am fairly sure that he would have been more than pleased with what was a truly refreshing piece of theatre.


4 March 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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