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Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre – review

Katherine Parkinson and John Heffernan star as Beatrice and Benedick

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Wendy Kweh, Katherine Parkinson and Ioanna Kimbook
© Manuel Harlan

It's hard to go wrong with Much Ado about Nothing. One of the most riotous Shakespearean comedies, filled with all the expected duplicitous tropes as well as heavy helpings of tragedy and romance and weighty roles for men and women alike, the play is one of the finest in his folio and, for the uninitiated, a more accessible first foray than most. However, Simon Godwin's new staging, transported from 16th century Sicily to an early 20th century Mediterranean Hotel, fails to fully ignite.

To begin with, John Heffernan and Katherine Parkinson are a puzzling mismatch as this iconic couple of feuding paramours. At their first meeting they fall short of eliciting the necessary combative chemistry that will inevitably melt into affection, and while their pairing has its charm, the lack of believable romance between the two undercuts much of the play's purpose.

Heffernan's diminutive Benedick is something of an alternative take on the role. His declarations seem to lack his comrade's approval from the off, so rather than playing an over-indulged egotist he is instead inflated with unearned bravado. It is as though Alan Partridge, alter ego of comedian Steve Coogan, is soliloquising on the Lyttelton stage. And yet, Heffernan earns the evening its greatest ovation as he clownishly conceals himself in an ice cream cart while eavesdropping, resulting in a meek renunciation of his previous remarks while resembling a fab lolly. His subsequent unravelling is masterful.

John Heffernan, Rufus Wright, Eben Figueiredo and Ashley Zhangazha
© Manuel Harlan

Katherine Parkinson meanwhile never comes close enough to Heffernan's comic turn to even bite at his heels, and the symmetry between their scenes in the first act is not to her benefit. Though she is stylishly attired throughout by costume designer Evie Gurney, Parkinson neither achieves enough hilarity in her humour to keep pace with Heffernan nor depth enough in her despair to avoid being eclipsed by the passionate performance of Ioanna Kimbook as Hero. What should be comic moments are played gravely while some traditionally more serious lines draw unexpected laughs due to her dry delivery.

Among the 20-strong cast, David Fynn gives a masterclass in focus-pulling physicality as the officious oaf Dogberry, leader of the watch, here reimagined as an exceptionally eager team of hotel security staff. Not in recent memory have these supporting characters proved such a highlight, likewise nor has the nefarious subplot between Borachio and Margaret, played with tremendous enthusiasm by Phoebe Horn, been so effectively evoked. As Claudio, Eben Figueirido's London-accented delivery is a refreshing interpretation of Shakespearean language and an engaging portrayal, albeit familiar of his recent turn in Jamie Lloyd's Cyrano.

Unfortunately, there is something lacking from what seemed to be a promising offering from the National Theatre. The laughs are inconsistent and the drama inconsequential, though it has a handful of hilarious moments, the action on stage is never genuinely affecting. Beyond this, it is missing the coup de theatre audiences at this venue have come to expect – the whimsical onstage 'Hotel Band' inject atmosphere into Anna Fleischle's stunning multi-level set, but expectations for Shakespearean stagings at the National are high and for this production to be without not only much ado, but any at all, is disappointing.