EVERY Hamlet faces a dilemma – apart from that one, to be or otherwise. With the words so familiar that audience members mouth them at the same time, how does the actor make them click, not cliché? It's a knotty problem.
This Hamlet gave us Knotty Ash. "Happiness, happiness," sings Jonathan Slinger with sardonic levity before reciting the world's most famous death wish. Apart from the rather unfortunate events around him – dead dad, lustful mum, murderous uncle – this prince of Denmark has only to look about him to feel depressed in this original and gripping production by director David Farr.
The scenery is as bleak as in any Scandinavian thriller, except here the action takes place in a dingy village hall, a solitary balloon the only sign of former frolics. Slinger lacks the tragic good looks of your archetypal Hamlet – indeed there is more of the Kenneth Dodd than your Kenneth Branagh about him. His mother might not thank me for it, but rotund gawkishness can also be an asset.
For this is a small town Hamlet, a hamlet Hamlet, an ordinary man tortured by extraordinary misfortune. What turns that into great drama is Slinger's exceptional skill in making even the most elaborate lines sound natural and instantly understandable.
The angular, demonstrative Greg Hicks is the slippery-suited Claudius, and Robin Soans is a gloriously tiresome Polonius. No petty-minded bureaucrat ever more deserved to get it in the ribs.
The stage is surrounded by a dirt path filled with protruding skulls and bones – policewomen please note – in which Pippa Nixon, the dead Ophelia, reposes during the closing scenes, prettily adding to the body count. Performances of Hamlet run until September 28. For tickets call 08448 001110.