As You Like It review: Rose Ayling-Ellis’s physical poetry is a winner

Leah Harvey (Rosalind) and Rose Ayling-Ellis (Celia) in As You Like It (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

From Strictly to Shakespeare is quite a leap, but EastEnders actress and 2021 dance champion Rose Ayling-Ellis makes it look easy in Josie Rourke’s autumnal revival of Shakespeare’s bittersweet comedy.

She plays Celia, who flees her repressive father and heads to the quasi-fantastical forest of Arden with her cousin Rosalind (Leah Harvey), both of them dressed as men.

As a British Sign Language user, Ayling-Ellis delivers the Bard’s verse in a winning mix of BSL, Sign Supported English and expressive physical gestures that have their own vivid physical poetry.

It is fitting for a play that is steeped less in action than in a certain musical romantic sensibility. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Celia quite this animated, anguished, mischievous and assertive. She’s worth the trip all by herself.

Still, it’s a bold move by Rourke to stage one of Shakespeare’s less-performed plays as only the second show at this brand new theatre on Charing Cross Road.

Martha Plimpton as Jacques

Martha Plimpton’s Jacques lacks the required bleakness (Picture: Johan Persson)

Her production, staged in the round, is full of beauty, with on-stage pianist Michael Bruce accompanying the verse throughout in ways that neatly accentuate the play’s lambent lyricism. Leaves fall from above, like the scraps of poetry Alfred Enoch’s love-struck Orlando leaves on the trees for Rosalind. The stage glows like a jewel.

Harvey – one of several trans and non-binary performers – is a lovely playful Rosalind, but others miss the detail and the darker undertones. I wanted more bleak anguish from Martha Plimpton’s Jacques, for instance. There’s a sense the production is in thrall to its own loveliness.

But maybe there’s nothing wrong with loveliness at this time of year. And Ayling-Ellis makes Celia her own.

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