Love's Labour's Lost (Stratford-upon-Avon)

Christopher Luscombe directs two lavish productions of Shakespeare’s comedies

I get the feeling that the Royal Shakespeare Company have a hit on their hands with Christopher Luscombe's elegant production of Shakespeare's early comedy of love among the upper classes, which is twinned with Love's Labours Won (or Much Ado).

Visually, the production is astounding. Taking their cue from the architecture of Charlecote Park (situated not far from Stratford), Luscombe and his designer Simon Higlett exploit the potential of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to the fullest with a design that captures the elegance of an English Country House to spectacular effect moving effortlessly from library to the lawn, music room to the rooftops – it really is a feast for the eyes.

The decision to set the play immediately before the start of the First World War does, on the whole, work. After all, the play sees privileged young people living in their own bubble of romantic intrigue and endless summer, which is then punctured by the outside world forcing them to confront a new reality. But it is much more than just Downton comes to Stratford.

Credit for its success must be shared with Nigel Hess, who has created a score that evokes the world of Edwardian music beautifully. This is a very musical production with some well-judged underscoring alongside some very entertaining set-pieces (not least the best setting of 'The Nine Worthies' scene that I have ever encountered.)

In the main, there is a lightness of touch in Luscombe's handling of the actors – giving them the freedom to mine a very wordy text for as much humour as they can. He establishes a generous playing style but also controls the shift in tone at the close of the play with aplomb. I am not ashamed to say that the finale brought a tear to my eye – and I suspect I was not alone.

There is much to enjoy in the individual characterisations. I particularly warmed to the cheekily winning performance of Peter McGovern as Moth. It is not often this character gets a chance to almost steal the show – but McGoven manages it.

The central couples, led by Michelle Terry as Rosaline and Edward Bennett as Berowne (who double as Beatrice and Benedick), enjoy their romantic play to great effect; Tunji Kasim stealing many hearts with his attachment to his teddy and Leah Whitaker shining as the Princess of France – relishing every moment with elegance, charm and an inner steel.

At times there are some infelicities in the use of the space with actors masking what is going on elsewhere on stage. I appreciate that a thrust stage is not the easiest to handle but large swathes of the audience do have their views blocked by actors who could be located elsewhere. A minor quibble but one that could and should have been sorted by now.

Love's Labour's Lost runs with Love's Labour's Won (or Much Ado About Nothing) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to 18 March 2017.