FROGS The Brewhouse, Taunton
Geoff Fox enjoyed a 2,400-year-old satire which could teach modern writers a thing or two. This is a stunning night out with a cast in love with their play. Aristophanes is still surprising them with his modernity. They savour their text, from the "ee-by-'eck" gossip of a couple of landladies in Hades, to the keen-edged satire about political sleaze or smuggling arms to the enemy. No need to add this material - Aristophanes got there first.
When an actor playing the servant, Xantias, was asked during a post-production discussion if he based his reading on Baldrick in the Black Adder television series, he laughed and said: "Just shows you where Ben Elton gets his ideas. " This is satire fuelled by sincerity and anxiety; if the state needs its truth tellers and the writers are not there to play that part, then who will?
Frogs is played at a wonderfully brisk tempo, full of colour, light, movement and song. There is selfless ensemble work from a cast who own the production they helped to evolve; their evident pleasure in each other's work is testimony to the subtle and brilliant achievement of Fiona Laird, who is the adaptor, director and musical composer.
Her score is crucial in sustaining the pace: Dionysus lives up to his towering Elvis hair-do with some gyrating do-wop; an Estuary-accented Euripides argues his case against Aeschylus in a rap routine. But the tempo can shift to allow for moments of reverence and stillness from the chorus. All the singing is a cappella; the harmonies are complex, the range diverse and the disciplined talent of the performers a delight.
In the discussion, the cast insisted this production is faithful to the spirit of the original. No compromise had been made for youthful audiences; even inscrutable jokes about donkey-shearers had been kept in.
The actors' movement workshops began with the oldest-known Greek dances. The parody of conventions in the original production of 405 BC was echoed in modern movement and music. Sometimes the two worlds connect: Dionysus' slick backing group suddenly seemed to echo a cavorting decoration around some Grecian vase; where the ancient Greek actors used masks, this production has pantomime make-up or grotesque wigs.
Aeschylus and Euripides argue it out in a contest which switches between a game-show, a boxing match and the National Lottery, with Dionysus as a wisecracking host-referee, flanked by a couple of bimbos preening and posing beside the flashing scoreboard-scales, weighing the poets' words.
I asked for some instant reviews from students who had come to the Brewhouse with very different expectations - they're doing Oedipus for GCSE. "Great, the pace, the music, everything - really funny!" was a typical response. They thought their visit might have been even richer if they'd experienced one of the school-based workshops on offer from the National Theatre's Education Department, which are good preparation for a trip to the theatre. These explore movement, some of the historical context, and involve actors from the show as well as the education director.
Evening performances throughout the tour - including some nights in the Cottesloe Theatre on London's South Bank- are filling fast, but there is still room for groups at the matinees. There are also spaces in the workshop schedule, and at Pounds 60 for 2 hours (up to 15 students aged 14-18), it's a subsidised bargain.
If schools have anything left in the budget, a workshop and a visit to Frogs (preferably on a discussion night) would be money excellently invested.
Frogs is touring nationwide until May 18. Information from National Theatre Education, 0171 928 2033 ext 390