“A star danced, and under that was I born” declares Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing. Writer/director John Doyle has taken his title from this quote and the bare bones of Shakespeare's plot and characters to construct this bittersweet musical.
Twenty years have elapsed since Claude jilted Helen at the altar and their once close-knit group of friends is reduced to uncomfortable annual reunions, to which Helen has not been invited. Till now of course, for drama thrives on crisis.
The eight friends sing in harmony, but in truth they are ill at ease with each other and the couples within the group are sparring partners. The two fifty something singletons fare no better in their loneliness. Unlike Beatrice and Benedick, Ben and Barbara have not got it together.
The story is told in flashback, complete with echo effect and back projected date, so we know when we're in 1983. Doyle's style is to work with multi-talented actor/singer/musicians, who can pick up an instrument or a harmony as easily as they pick up a cue. Here he exploits eight seasoned performers of his work to the limit. They are required to accompany one another, or even themselves, as they move from quick-fire cross cutting dialogue to song and back again.
It all seems to bode well at the start, as Sarah Travis's haunting harmonies elegantly underscore the dialogue, picked up across Mark Bailey's cleverly mirrored set. But the production is curiously static and the characters fail to snap into three-dimensional life so that we care about them.
If we are to be truly moved by the mature lovers' dawning realisation of mutual affection, they must earn our affection as we journey with them. Here the spotlight turns on them too late, despite sympathetic performances from Karen Mann and Edward York.
The whole cast turns in creditable performances. Angela Sims' misunderstood homemaker Margaret and Nina Lucking's sour party pooper Joanna capture well their mutual antipathy and their disillusionment with their men folk.
Rebecca Jackson brings an unsettling stillness to the wronged Helen. As her erstwhile fiancé Claude, Christopher Dickens glowers effectively. Robert Sterne's sweetly dry Liam, Helen's supposed partner in infidelity, and Jeremy Harrison's stolid Peter, Margaret's insensitive husband, complete the party.
Ultimately though, this Shakespeare refracted through Ayckbourn and Sondheim really is much ado about nothing, although the night I saw the show, the audience was certainly appreciative.
- Judi Herman