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Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Canterbury Tales at The Lowry Theatre, Manchester

Without a shadow of a doubt, the absolutely best thing about Chaucer is that his most famous poem, The Canterbury Tales, is a piece of literature whose credentials are beyond impeachment; an unshakeable fixture in the English canon, to remain forever on the A-level syllabus; and yet is almost entirely about sex and farting. Undergraduates across the land have been discovering this joyous and generally unsuspected fact for years now, marching smugly to a class on Middle English with their Riverside Chaucer tucked innocently under one arm, looking for all the world like an intellectual - and yet actually off to while away a pleasant hour or so discussing sexual partners and bodily functions.

So imagine my delight that Northern Broadsides - a fine theatrical company whose productions are always worth seeing - have brought their own version of The-Rudest-Poem-In-The-World-Disguised-As-Classic-Literature to The Lowry Theatre. This new adaptation by Mike Poulton has received rave reviews in London since it was first performed in February, and yet actually sticks very closely to the original text. Obviously Poulton has been careful to select the very rudest tales to include in his new production, but almost all of the language is Chaucer's own, with very little modernisation, although I'm not sure the inclusion of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" featured prominently in the original text. When performed aloud the Middle English from over 600 years ago sounds surprisingly fresh and modern; I will gloss over the chilling fact that during the enunciation of the famous prologue, about the pilgrims setting off on their travels, someone in the row behind me did mutter (none too quietly) "Dear God, what is he on about? I really can't sit through three hours of this."

The friend who went with me was a Chaucer virgin, and although I did try to warn her about the filth that would surely follow she was still both shocked and impressed in equal measures by the combination of tender tales of love, honour and chivalry, and bawdy stories of cuckolded husbands, bare bottoms hanging out of windows and merry swiving in pear trees. The production is quite long at three hours including interval, but it passes in a flash, and the quality of staging, acting, music and singing is excellent across the board. The play runs until this Saturday, 22nd May and is well worth catching if you can - where else can you enjoy such base pleasures and still call it culture?

- full details at, or call the box office on 0843 208 6000.

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