Much Ado About Nothing (Lion and Unicorn Theatre)
An imaginative adaptation of Much Ado that's packed with action and fizzing with powerful emotions
This exuberant production squeezes every ounce of comedy from Shakespeare's play about the irresistible power of love, and discovers new laughs you never knew were there.
The cast are all bursting with infectious energy and set out their stall with a very contemporary opening dance routine to the Taylor Swift song: "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"; Beatrice and Benedick chasing each other robustly around the room to establish that this is a relationship with a long and troubled history.
The jousting of wits between Beatrice and Benedick is superbly done. Hannah Ellis is sparky, funny and charming as Beatrice, and the clarity of her performance fully justifies all the observations about her quick wit and sharp tongue that come her way during the play.
And Christopher Neels is a force of nature as Benedick – like an adorable but untrainable puppy, he rollocks energetically through life making a joke of everything. He's already shown his mettle as a man in the wars that finish as the play begins, but here he also exhibits an open-hearted demeanour that wins everyone's heart but Beatrice's – and she too, must inevitably fall.
Neels' physical comedy is completely without compromise, and he fills the space with his warmth and zest.
As part of director Ross McGregor's adaptation, Don John and Don Pedro are compressed into one character, Don Pedro, played with authoritative menace by Ben Bradford – though purists might argue that this device removes a layer of subtlety from the plot's progress.
Darren Benedict as Conrade is the Peter Mandelson to Don Pedro's Tony Blair. His oily scheming, fuelled by jealousy, sets in motion the disastrous slander against Beatrice's cousin Hero, played with demure but determined strength by the sweet-voiced Remy Moynes. Her father Leonato is also given gravitas by Gareth Kearns.
Claudio, so easily duped, is transformed from eager youth to vicious man before our eyes by Ben Kerfoot – and all credit to the brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, directed by Robert Myles, which cram really meaty brawls into a tiny space.
Movement is directed by Will Pinchin, with additional choreography by Omar F. Okai, and their sparkling work helps to make this an extremely contemporary production. If there were a dance-off prize, it would have to go to Chrissy Kett, who also plays shopaholic Dogberry, alongside Laura Cooper as Verges and a very saucy Margaret.
Director Ross McGregor is clearly overflowing with ideas, and with this mightily talented cast and production team behind him, has created a show that gives full measure to the manifest cruelty shown to Hero, but succeeds in its aim to entertain wholeheartedly.