“Shakespeare transported to seedy ‘60s nightclub”

A theatre in Stevenage had ‘house full’ notices out all the week – for a play by Shakespeare! No, not the Gordon Craig but the somewhat smaller Lytton Players’ home in Vardon Road.

The enterprising company decided to mount Much Ado About Nothing, a wise choice. It is a happy mixture of romance, sophisticated high comedy and knockabout low comedy.

Experienced producer and director Dave Slade chose to set the scene not in 17th-century Sicily, but in a seedy ‘60s English nightclub. Sometimes his idea worked, sometimes it did not, and there was an enormous amount of clever and effective business to balance against the considerable mismatch between what was seen and what was heard. The play is full of practical jokes (some sick) about three distinct and colliding groups of people. First, there are the ‘top people’, weary warriors returning from war; the handsome prince Don Pedro, his malignant brother Don John and two companions, young Italian lords Claudio and Benedick.

It is the story of Claudio and his only love, Hero, that forms the main plot, and Matt Steer made Claudio a highly likeable youth and managed the transition between Shakespeare’s words and Mr Slade’s setting of them better than many. So did the equally amiable Alex Hancock as the Don.

Then there are the civilians – bourgeois residents of the town who welcome the military, headed by the white-haired governor of the town, Leonato, his beautiful daughter Hero and last but by no means least his feisty niece Beatrice.

John Dunleavy was no governor but nevertheless an honest and worried man battered by circumstances beyond his control. Hero was charmingly played by Rachel Smith with an innocent, unassuming dignity and quiet charm.

It is the tussle between Beatrice and Benedick and their relationship around which much of the convoluted sub-plot revolves. Moving from being sharp and beady at the outset to enormous tenderness at the end when she is reconciled with her on-off lover Benedick, she mastered the part completely.

Finally the third group, the volunteer militia who form the town watch. Mr Slade had the task of finding any contemporary humour in this bunch of oddballs, who are among the unfunniest clowns in all Shakespeare, and succeeded by creating over-the-top caricatures of all six of them. Often played as men straight out of Dad’s Army (when they work well), Mr Slade here made them nightclub bouncers, led by the town constable Dogberry, a rumbustious performance from Dominic Baker who coped well with the constable’s uncertain grasp of the English language.

No room, alas, to mention the numerous other members of the cast by name, who all entered into the spirit of the production, which must have overcome some of the prejudices against the Bard and will certainly entertain the pupils in the schools it tours.

Leonard Rogers – The Mercury, 1st December 2006 Reproduced by kind permission of the Hertfordshire Mercury