Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Rose Theatre, Kingston)
Mel Giedroyc stars alongside John Hopkins as Beatrice and Benedick in Simon Dormandy's production
If this production was a cake, it would resolutely refuse to rise. Someone seems to have forgotten some of the essential ingredients when it comes to playing Shakespeare's sophisticated dark comedy about lovers Beatrice and Benedick and their assembled friends.
Its main attraction is the return to the stage of Mel Giedroyc, now best known as the former presenter of the Great British Bake Off, a purveyor of puns about soggy bottoms and big baps. It appears to be the first time she has played Shakespeare, and she wraps her tongue pretty well around the intricacies of the language.
The humour she brings to the part is not subtle – it's all double takes and pained looks at the audience. But the warmth of her presence is a plus. She over-emphasises the physical comedy, however, with an unfortunate tendency to stick her neck out and stomp across the stage in search of a laugh. She also currently entirely misses the sadness and fear which you can glimpse at the heart of Beatrice's refusal to marry and her revolt against the patriarchal society in which she finds herself trapped.
This is a pity because she has in John Hopkins a Benedick who is, without doubt, the main reason to take the trip to Kingston to catch the show. Also familiar from TV (Midsomer Murders, Poldark) he gives a wonderfully controlled and attractive performance. It's brilliant in the slapstick moments when Benedick hides to avoid being seen, flinging himself around the stage with controlled abandon, launching a series of acrobatic press-ups, but also refined and thoughtful as the man truly finds himself in love. There's not much chemistry between them, but together they hold the play.
Surrounding events are a more mixed affair. Director Simon Dormandy's decision to set the entire thing in a current day spa hotel in Siciliy – endlessly explained in a long prologue about "mindfulness makeovers" and golf pros – is not in itself a bad idea. It enables Don Pedro (Peter Guinness) to be reconfigured as a Mafia don, and the soldiers returning from the wars to be his crew. It also explains the way the women in this play are so subservient to male will.
However, on Naomi Dawson's two-tier hotel lobby set, the action that then opens up is too heartless and too broad. This is Much Ado About Nothing reimagined as Carry On Camping, with characters in Ninja Turtle and Batman fancy dress (Beatrice is a padded cow for some reason) and Dogberry (Stephen Watson), the busy-body constable, reimagined as an intrusive hotel security man with a line in martial arts.
All the humour comes from scenes reimagined outside the play; nothing much springs from within its lines and its verbal dexterity goes for nothing. This is partly thanks to a bafflingly uneven group of supporting performances which seem to be shouted across the Rose's open spaces, though against the flow of the tide, Nicholas Prasad does manage to make a character of a thug called Borachio.
Combined with odd issues of pacing, it all makes for a frustrating evening – all icing and no sponge, as Mel herself might say. Half-baked.