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A CurtainUp London London Review
Much Ado About Nothing

There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them. — Don Pedro
Much Ado About Nothing
Sean Campion as Benedick
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
The opening of Timothy Sheader's second season as Artistic Director of the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park has been blessed with beautifully balmy weather. But while the setting is pitch perfect his production of Much Ado About Nothing fails to hit the right note. Although moderately entertaining, the darker elements in the play jostle uneasily with the high-spirited comedy and no new insights are offered into this famous battle of the sexes in which the sparks rarely fly.

At the heart of the show there is a mismatch between the two leading players: while Samantha Spiro's warmly sympathetic Beatrice exudes feisty wit which covers up an emotional vulnerability, there is no real feeling behind Sean Campion's slick showman Benedick, who appears to be acting to the audience rather than reacting to the other characters. The whole point of the verbal jousting between the pair is that there should be a strong mutual attraction underlying the insults which they attempt to deny, but here the chemistry is missing.

The production begins well when we see Beatrice alone looking pensive, having just heard the news that Benedick (with whom she once had a short affair) is coming to stay at Messina with other soldiers returning from war. But any sense of tenderness or hurt between the ex-lovers is quickly lost in a barrage of over-the-top horseplay, which too often plays as knockabout farce rather than witty banter. So when Benedick finally acknowledges his love for Beatrice and agrees to challenge Claudio (Ben Mansfield) to a duel as proof, it seems unbelievable.

The sub-plot involving Don John's (Tim Steed) efforts to sabotage the wedding between Claudio and Hero (Anneika Rose) is handled clumsily. Near the start we see Don Pedro release his half-brother Don John from handcuffs as an already publicly known villain, so why would Don Pedro (Silas Carson), Claudio and Hero's father Leonato (Nigel Cooke) believe in his trumped-up story about Hero's infidelity? The repentance of these doubters is unconvincing, so that the misogynistic aspects of a paternalistic society where unmarried women are regarded as either virgins or whores sit uncomfortably with the breezy cheerfulness elsewhere.

But if the contradictory moods of the play are not reconciled there are certainly compensating pleasures to be gained from this show. Though overdone, the 'setting up' of Beatrice and Benedick is full of boisterous humour, while the scenes involving the pint-sized pomposity of Dogberry (Anthony O'Donnell) and the earnestly incompetent antics of his fellow watchmen are often very funny.

Philip Witcomb's design of a swirling wooden ramp with a central round performance area provides opportunities for multi-level action, while the orange and lemon trees suggest an appropriately lush Mediterranean ambience, and Deirdre Clancy's gorgeously vibrant costumes add much colour. The songs by David Shrubsole are rather twee but Ann Yee's graceful choreography enlivens proceedings during a pleasant evening in the park that does not go very deep into the heart.

Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Cast: Peter Bramhill, Sean Campion, Silas Carson, Eke Chukwu, Nigel Cooke, Simon Gregor, Tim Howar, Sarah Ingram, Chris Jared, Ben Mansfield, Mark McGee, Harry Myers, Anthony O'Donnell, Anneika Rose, Annalisa Rossi, Samantha Spiro, Tim Steed, Kate Tydman, David Whitworth
Design: Philip Witcomb
Costumes: Deirdre Clancy
Music: David Shrubsole
Choreography: Ann Yee
Lighting: Simon Mills
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes (including interval)
Box Office: 0844 826 4242
Booking to 27th June 2009
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on 1st June 2009 performance at the Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent's Park, London NW1 4NR (Tube: Baker St.)
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