Shakespeare's 'King John' was big in the Victorian era: the opportunity for excess pomp in a work that largely consists of grandiose court scenes and walloping great land battles apparently overrode any qualms the hokey plot and underdeveloped characters may otherwise have raised.
In the post-pageantry era the play's star has plummeted. But this lean, blackly hilarious take from Phil Willmott genuinely breathes fresh life into it.
Spectacle is scarce in a fringe production that doesn't even have a set. But Willmott has embraced the text's flaws to turn 'King John' into a 'Dr Strangelove'-esque satire on the idiocy of warmongers.
Here, the superb Nicholas Osmond's preening, scheming John and Damian Quinn's uptight King Philip of France score big laughs as they engage in an increasingly ludicrous series of tête-à-têtes to decide the fate of the town of Angiers, a process so absurd it sends Rikki Lawton's initially affable Philip the Bastard completely off the rails.
It's all there in the folio, of course, but those po-faced Victorians would have surely been aghast at Osmond's performance as a faintly sociopathic weirdo who largely seems to be fighting the French for his own amusement.
The air of gleeful mischief drops off in the second half (the accidental suicide of John's nephew Arthur is strangely unfunny, considering the general tone), but by and large this is a rip-roaringly fun production that does much to rehabilitate this most awkward of plays.