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Kemp’s Jig

by on 24 April 2019

The Jig’s Up

Kemp’s Jig

by Chris Harris

Blue Fire Theatre Company at Tara Arts Theatre, Earlsfield until 23rd April, then on tour until 17th August

Review by Andrew Lawston

In 1599, Elizabethan comic actor and clown Will Kemp danced from London to Norwich, following his departure from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, William Shakespeare’s company. When I’d first read about this epic jig, it was in a context where it appeared as little more than an eccentric footnote, and it struck me as more of a quixotic mission than a show business masterstroke. Now, Steve Taylor’s revived performance of Chris Harris’s one-man show Kemp’s Jig for Blue Fire Theatre Company and producer Lottie Walker, expands on the 125 mile Morris Dancing adventure. The perfect show to mark both St. George’s Day, and the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death; and of course birth.   (Kemp’s Jig is part of the Tara Theatre Celebrates Shakespeare week, which includes The Dramatic Exploits of Edmund Kean.)


On a plain set that consists almost entirely of a map of Kemp’s route, a screen, and a trunk emblazoned with its owner’s name (“Kemp with a ‘p’, not Kemp with an ‘e’,” as Kemp keeps reminding the audience), Kemp relates the tale of his feat, with frequent digressions into his theatrical career, and grumbling about his former colleague “Shakesrags”.

KempJigShoesOn several occasions, wonderful puppets and other props are brought out of the trunk to help him perform scenes from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Merchant of Venice and, finally, after a full show of Kemp shouting, “I should have played the Nurse!” from Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes Kemp even showcases the dancing which made his feat so extraordinary, but these sections are few, and generally brief.

Taylor maintains character as Kemp at all times, even when interacting with the audience at Tara Arts Theatre by handing them his props for safekeeping. A one-man show of ninety minutes (not including an interval) is a huge undertaking, and the script is clearly divided into sections to help the performer, with, I suspect, at least a couple of aides memoires in Kemp’s trunk. Even when Taylor’s focus is occasionally visibly shaken, however, he remains in total command of the material.

KempJig2As the tale of a comic actor, Kemp’s Jig is inevitably very funny. But it’s not all laughs, as Kemp talks frankly about being glad to be out of plague-ridden, filthy London, and gives a stomach-turning description of dragging Shakespeare to a public execution. He claims Shakespeare couldn’t eat for a week after witnessing the gruesome spectacle, and then begins a flashback of an extended argument with the Bard which comes as welcome comic relief. These interludes (between Taylor as Kemp and Taylor as Kemp as compulsively beard-stroking “Shakesrags”) are consistently entertaining, though as the show goes on it becomes very difficult to think of William Shakespeare as anyone other than whining old Albert Steptoe. Which is almost certainly deliberate.

“Let those that play your clowns say no more than is set down for them,” is Hamlet’s famous line that many scholars have believed to be a dig from Shakespeare aimed directly at Kemp’s ad-libbing and embellishments, and Kemp repeats it often, alternating between gleeful pride and professional disdain. Kemp has a great deal to say, and its delivery is unfailingly entertaining. The show sets up an intriguing conflict between character comedy and more performative slapstick, audience interaction, and visual comedy material. While it’s clear which side of the argument Kemp favours, it’s hard to dismiss Shakespeare’s more thoughtful approach.


Featuring a wonderful performance of Morris Dance from Dacre Morris, the members of whom sit patiently at the side of the stage throughout, Kemp’s Jig is a thoroughly irreverent and entertaining look at England’s theatrical and social history.

Andrew Lawston
April 2019

Photography by JoJo at Handwritten Photography and Timeline

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