Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Tobacco Factory)

Shakespeare’s sharp-tongued comedy charms the audience in Elizabeth Freestone’s production

Dorothea Myer-Bennett in Much Ado About Nothing
Dorothea Myer-Bennett in Much Ado About Nothing
© Mark Douet

It was a fair battle to get anywhere near the theatre on press night for the latest Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, as City and Charlton were in full swing in Bristol's Ashton Gate stadium just around the corner. That, plus the prospect of a three hour running time, meant there was more than a little disquiet rumbling round the foyer ahead of Elizabeth Freestone's production of Much Ado About Nothing.

But sigh not so – this is Shakespeare's sharp-tongued comedy and its wit and romance, at its best, is able to charm even the grumpiest of punters. And the show, running in the STF's 20th anniversary season, really is a delight. Though the modern-dress production does push a few try-hard 'kooky' moments, ultimately it relies on an absolutely great cast and Shakespeare's verse.

It is one of the Bard's funnest plays, which tells of a group of soldiers returning from war to spend time with Leonato and his family. As they arrive, soldier Claudio professes his love for Leonato's daughter Hero, while Benedick continues to quarrel with his sparring partner Beatrice. Beatrice and Benedick are one of the most enjoyable double-acts in the canon and here their barbs land clear, true and funny. But the play traverses a fine line between tragedy and comedy and trouble arrives when Hero is wrongly accused of being 'a common stale' (read harlot).

Mostly though, Much Ado About Nothing is filled with jest, love and heartache. And while Freestone's ideas aren't exactly new – the masked party where the revellers dress as caped crusaders is very Filter-esque – they are delivered with such good humour that it really doesn't matter. Freestone's direction is subtle and its strength lies in her focus on the cast.

Dorothy Myer-Bennett as Beatrice comes off the best of a strong bunch. She manages to build a unique version of a character we've seen a lot and her rage, wit and intelligence comes across beautifully with a contemporary twist. Geoffrey Lumb as Benedick is admirable foil and by the end of the play it's very hard not to end up feeling like a little puddle of melted heart on the floor.

But there are more people to be mentioned in this troupe, not least Zachary Powell as a robust and grounded Don Pedro and Imran Momen as a sweet and gentle Claudio. There's also a distinct rapport between the cast, who change roles and costumes often, and a nicely pitched sense of pace. It's such an ensemble piece that, as the show continues, it will likely get even funnier and even tighter.

Jean Chan's designs are bright and modern, with Hero wearing lumberjack shirts and Converse trainers and Louise Mai Newberry's Dogberry stomping about in a high-vis vest and hard hat. The set relies only on props, colours and cast and yet there's still a real sense of a rich, mansion party-house created here.

It's a Much Ado that reminds of sunny summer evenings and young love and in this increasingly dark and cold part of the year, it's a welcome balm.