Desperate Measures (Manchester)

Dave Cunningham is impressed by this flawed but credible update of Measure for Measure at the Three Minute Theatre

Desperate Measures
Desperate Measures

Don't give me that Shakespeare bollocks. This is the 21st Century. The Manchester Shakespeare Company sets its adaptation of Measure for Measure in a future version of northwest England.

Desperate Measures is a fine, if uneven, first production from the new company. Despairing that his liberal policies are unpopular and have resulted in lawlessness, David Vincent (John Dayton), the Mayor of Mancia, lets his Coalition Deputy, Nicky Angelo (Alex Miller), take control – with disastrous, disturbing and outrageous results for everyone.

With admirable ambition, writers John Topliff (who also designed the set) and Hannah Ellis not only update the text, they increase its relevance to a contemporary audience, drawing in the Coalition Government and the riots that erupted across the country in 2011.

Although all the elements are in place for a political satire, the writers opt for a more broad comedy. This creates a crowd-pleasing show but omits the darker aspects that made the original so intriguing. What is lacking is a credible villain. Shakespeare offered the fascinating concept of a puritan unable to stick to his ideals and driven by lust to hypocritically abuse his power. Here we get a homophobic politician who is corrupt from his first appearance. The character is not as interesting or as frightening.

Alex Miller makes Nicky Angelo a broad panto villain, stroking his beard and rolling his eyes. It is funny enough, but there is no danger or tension, as there is a caricature of Boris Johnson in a play that needs Tony Blair. Other performances are more naturalistic; Heather Carroll communicates her revulsion through excellent facial reactions and body language alone. Laura Littlewood's increasing desperation and hysteria in Act One is made all the more funny by her previous restraint. Adam Vinten's splendidly OTT accent and roguish charm makes Claude a fine comic creation.

Gina T Frost and Matt Cawson co-direct with tremendous confidence and style. John Topliff's imaginative set opens from nondescript grey cabinets to reveal offices, jails and bedrooms. Appropriately for a society on the edge of disaster, stagehands dressed as aggressive hoodies prowl around the stage, switching scenes and bringing a much-needed sense of menace to the show.

The first Act is very taut with hardly a moment wasted, to the extent that, with an extra 20 minutes or so, it would have reached a natural and satisfactory conclusion. Stretched into a second Act, the play becomes looser with cute quotes from Shakespeare and a lengthy speech in blank verse which creeps in and develops an over-long feel.

Desperate Measures is a very enjoyable show, its few flaws being the result of enthusiastic commitment. It offers great promise for the company's next production – an update of Romeo and Juliet.

– Dave Cunningham