(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 7 March)
Expect a lot of new Shakespeare productions this year – it’s his quatercentenary. Hornchurch under its new artistic director Douglas Rintoul has been quick of the mark with what is my personal favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies – Much Ado About Nothing.
Rintoul and his designer Jean Chan have kept the Sicilian setting but opted for the end of World War II period. There are also some gender-shifts in the casting; Leonato (Mark Jax)’s broher Antonio is now his widowed sister Ursula (Eliza Hunt) and Pamela Burgess doubles Dogberry and Margaret.
What stands out in this interpretation is the characterisation of the two main characters. Thomas Padden’s Benedick and Hattie Ladbury are both outsiders in their respective milieux. One feels that he has developed his blistering wit as a fitting-in device with his fellow officers. She is a land-girl type, preferring slacks to skirts, and perhaps also concerned, as a poor relation, to prove her usefulness to her uncle and aunt.
Both catch the audience’s attention and affections from their first exchanges; we have all of us known the type and understand the vulnerability under the carapace. James Siggins’ Claudio suggests that it is Hero (Amber James)’s fortune as her father’s heir which initially attracts him. Both Liam Bergin’s Don John (all fascist black and bitter with it) and Sam Pay’s rough-hewn Borachio are excellent portraits, and there’s a good sketch of the Friar by Jamie Bradley.
But the play stands or falls by its Beatrice and Benedick. Ladbury and Padden wear these personalities with complete comfort and naturalism. I was waiting for the nervous laugh which so often follows her “Kill Claudio” and his immediate reaction “Not for the wide world”. It doesn’t happen here; just a gasp of horror has the injunction and rebuttal sink in.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 26 March with matinées on 10 and 19 March.