Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 16 June, 2000

The end-of-World War II setting permeates Rachel Kavanaugh's Much Ado from the opening seconds: a plane is heard overhead in a victory fly-past (so realistically that eyes are raised to the sky above Regent's Park), "Blue Skies" plays on the radio, Margaret reads a copy of Health & Strength. When the younger men arrive back from the military action, Don Pedro is uniformed as a brigadier general, Claudio as a lieutenant, the others as captains; they attend formal events such as the ball and the wedding in their dress pinks. The look and the sensibility, as the plus-two'd Leonato's country house is turned upside down by love affairs both contrived and destroyed, are everywhere.

Sometimes this pervasive atmosphere works against the play: would Claudio, raised to be such an officer and a gentleman, really embrace his general so warmly and so often? Sometimes it provides marvellous little touches: Benedick is wandering in the garden, taking still lifes with his box camera, when gulled by the others into believing Beatrice in love with him, and subsequently rushes off, camera at the ready, with "I will go get her picture." Sometimes the same device is both beautifully successful and rather too blatant: yes, it makes perfect sense for the Watch to become a Home Guard platoon, but no matter how many laughs it brings, is it really wise to have Ian Talbot and John Conroy as Dogberry and Verges so completely become Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson?

Tom Mannion is one of the most consistently delightful actors on our stages, bringing the same easy naturalness to his characterisation whether he is playing in Art (also under Kavanaugh's day-to-day direction) or as the finest Cyrano I have seen. His Benedick is playful but never clownish, self-aware but never too knowing; Nicola Redmond's Bette Davis-like Beatrice is almost a match for him. Tam Williams is a talented actor who goes all out as the young and passionate Claudio, but something (not least his glottal-stopped T's and frequently dropped H's) suggests that he is not at his most comfortable in classical roles. Harry Burton's rather cipher-like Don John makes it more apparent than ever that the real deviousness and villainy are Borachio's (a slyly insinuating Paul Kemp, almost Iagoesque in his unrepentance). Timothy Kightley and Michael Medwin largely refrain from playing the doddering card as Leonato and Antonio respectively. Only in the final couple of minutes does Kavanaugh muff it by going for one of those minor-key endings so modish now in productions of Shakespearan comedies; for the two and three-quarter hours preceding, this Much Ado is one mof the more agreeable evenings I have spent in the Open Air Theatre.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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