Thursday, 19 July 2018

REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing at the Verulamium Roman Theatre


An invitation to drive out to St Albans to see a musical version of Shakespeare's Much Ado about nothing set in the 1950's and staged in the Roman Theatre of Verulamium is too tempting to resist and the effort was certainly rewarded.For the production company OVO this is the 17th Shakespeare play staged in the innovative, imaginative and inspiring way they approach the challenge . Directors Adam Nichols and Janet Podd have a very strong creative flair that does not simply transport the words into modern dress but breathes fresh ideas into the story telling that makes it accessible to a first time audience and fresh and interesting for those who know the play well. On this occasion their vision is a sort of Happy Days meets South Pacific! 

Don John becomes Joanna, whose jealousy is fuelled by being rejected by the new singing sensation the Sonnettes. Leonato, becomes Leonata the owner of a fast food cafe and mother of Beatrice, the lead singer in the Sonnettes. But they don't stop there Antonio becomes a waitress Antonia and Verges becomes Vergine, the wife of Dogberry and the chorus becomes singers in the Sonnettes, waitresses in the cafe and sailors from the USS Gull hitting town for some rest and relaxation. Then they scatter the script with fifties references such flying a U2 out of Russia, Cuban cigars, Superman and Jackie Kennedy and host of hit songs from the era. It is bold and imaginative and works especially in the wonderful first half which sets up the story. In the second Act, the tone changes reflecting the different style in the original but it feels like more of the original play and language is retained and as a result is less effective.

There are great ideas in the comedy too particularly in the pivotal scenes where Benedict overhears the Don Carlos, Leonata and Claudio talking about Beatrice's love for him and when Beatrice overhears the Sonnettes talking about Benedict's love for her. Indeed it is the central performances of Faith Turner as Beatrice and Peter Bryans as Benedict that really makes this show a joy to watch. Their comic timing and clear strong diction means we enjoy every moment they are on stage. They get good support to from Lucy Crick as the disruptive Joanna, Anna Franklin as Leonata and Amy Connery as Hero.

The music too under the direction of Tom Cagnoni is lively and fun with some great choreography by Jill Priest which fully utilises the wide stage. I particularly enjoyed the opening Sonnettes scene setter of "Lollipop,Lollipop", "Mr sandman" and "Hit the road Jack" , the arrival of the sailors with "Blue Moon" , the Sonnettes reflecting on the plotting with "Poison Ivy", the arrest of Barachio and Conrade with "Jailhouse Rock", the announcement of Hero's death with "Leader of the Pack" and the lovely routine of Benedict and Beatrice in "it had to be you". The finale of "Everybody needs somebody" and "Jonny B Goode " provides a rousing conclusion to the evening.

There were some small irritating faults with the setting itself as the nearby
church bells rang for 30 minutes of the show, the personal mics were occasionally a fraction late being switched on and the lack of backstage masking meant we saw cast members walking down from the dressing rooms or walking towards the backstage steps. Indeed the Roman theatre added little to the experience except some health and safety warnings and only the single standing column lit in the finale played any role in the production.

Overall this was an excellent reinterpretation, imaginatively staged, with some fine individual performances and wonderful fifties feel from costumes to the superb six piece band. It will definitely be worth catching when it moves on to Minack in the last week of August and the sea will provide a marvellous back drop to the show.

Reviewed by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seats Unreserved rear stalls | Price £17.50

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