“Reaching inventive new heights without pretension, this production feels fresh, striving to relate to its audience”
Love is a fickle old thing that can make a person crazy. It can drive wedges between friendships and cause chaos all around it. In an exciting new adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, presented by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, such effects of love are all on display. Razor-sharp in delivery, this intelligent retelling is as joyously entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
A group of soldiers are on leave from war, and accept the invite of staying with Leonato, the Governor of Messina, and his family, for a few days. What ensues is a gush of mixed emotions as the heady concoction of civilian life, falling in and out of love, and trickery befalls on the party.
Director Elizabeth Freestone has done a tremendous job in finding some original ways of reimagining Much Ado, giving it fresh meaning. The use of filming from phones is an ingenious take on the original text. It firmly places the story in 2019, giving the play a chance to explore current issues such as fake news, online trolling and abuse through social media, which completely works. It makes the premise seem far more plausible for a 21st century audience, and proves that a 400-year old text still has relevance. The hilarious use of fancy dress (I won’t give away the costume theme) during the integral masked ball, is another moment of modernisation that Freestone has so brilliantly encompassed. Despite perhaps being used in other recent Shakespeare adaptations, the fancy dress concept is still clever and highly jubilant.
There’s an electric energy between Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Geoffrey Lumb as the conflicting lovers Beatrice and Benedick, both actors making the witty put downs towards one another fizz and crackle. Myer-Bennett in particular is on plucky form, doing complete justice to arguably Shakespeare’s best written female role. The whole cast should be applauded for really making the text their own, never shying away from originality or the unconventional, yet always making sure it is rooted in truth.
Freestone reveals that she aims for a 50/50 gender balance in her productions meaning gender-blind casting for some of the roles. Here, the melancholy meddler and villain of the show Don Jon, and the jobs-worth constable Dogberry have been given to female actors (Georgia Frost and Louise Mai Newberry) which fits naturally. As women are holding higher positions within the workplace and many more joining military forces, Freestone’s decision reflects this justly. Both actors revel in their parts, Frost bringing a jealous capriciousness, and Newberry an irresistible sass.
Music, as always with Shakespeare, plays a big part. Not only is it used in this production for transitions or decorative embellishment, but entwined within the story, utilised for comic effect and the like. Bethan Mary-James as likeable Margaret, the singer and waiting lady to Hero, is congenitally attached to a ukulele, who strums away to the annoyance or delight of the other characters.
Much Ado is heralded a comedy, but this recent offering from the Tobacco Factory really highlights the surprisingly darker, more tragic elements to the tale. Creating a much needed juxtaposition from the laughs and tomfoolery, the characters go on a believable roller coaster ride of emotions. Reaching inventive new heights without pretension, this production feels fresh, striving to relate to its audience.
“a hugely enjoyable watch which will have its audience gripped”
Mrs Alicia Christie (Abigail Cruttenden) has the perfect upstanding family life. Or so she would like you to believe. Below the surface of formality, there bubbles intense resentment and one-sided jealousy between father Robert (Ian Kelly) and son Roy (Jack Staddon), the latter of which is due to be wed in four days to the beautiful Louise (Jemima Watling). Daughter Thea (Eva Feiler) offers some respite to the family’s persistent quarrelling, but tensions are consistently high and the stressful burden of playing happy families is taken on by the dutiful Alicia.
When Alicia goes out to the local department store to buy some groceries for dinner with Louise’s parents, she makes a split-second decision that shocks both her family and herself. Enlisting the services of ‘mind specialist’ Dr. Hawkins (Nicholas Murchie), the well-to-do family attempt to understand what led their dear matriarch to commit such an act. Black Chiffon, written by Lesley Storm in 1949 and directed here by Clive Brill, is about family, social preservation and the often-unrecognised struggle of the harmonising mother.
The acting is strong from all parties and the characters highly believable. Cruttenden commands the stage with her defiant motherly strength and Kelly does well to act the detestable and distant father. Staddon and Feiler have good sibling chemistry and Watling – in the same role her late grandmother, Patricia Watling, played in the 1950 Broadway production – is the perfect simpering bride. Murchie is witty and quick and his conversations with Cruttenden comprise some of the play’s best moments. The dialogue can be a bit cliché at times such as the grand announcement that closes the first act, but in general the script is solid and intriguing.
The set (Beth Colley) is wonderfully elaborate. The play’s action takes place in the drawing room, a decorated space with dark green walls and a large window to the right. An ornate camelback sofa, armchair and round mahogany coffee table are centre stage. A well-stocked drinks cabinet sits on the back wall next to a small table with a telephone. The actors enter and exit from stage left through a pair of double doors that can be pulled to. The audience also walks through these and along a short corridor decorated as if part of the house to reach their seats which is a nice touch in immersing them in the space.
Despite this limited setting, the play gives a good sense of space beyond the drawing room. The characters comment on the hustle and bustle elsewhere in the house and we hear cars pull into the drive. A painting hanging above the fireplace is remarked to be a painting of the house’s Embankment surroundings some years ago, and the characters regularly gaze out the window.
Each act is marked by a fade to black in which the family’s maid Nannie (Yvonne Newman) bustles around the house tidying and rearranging. Beyond this, the lighting (Pip Thurlow) is only notably used to create a sense of day and night through the window. This is at its best when vibrant oranges and pinks create an early morning glow. The costumes (Neil Gordon) were good and of the era with Cruttenden treated to a fabulous array of dresses and headpieces. The music – taken from David Darling’s album ‘Cello’ – creates a strong sense of foreboding and anxiety.
Brill’s production of Black Chiffon is a hugely enjoyable watch which will have its audience gripped. The performance is slick and carries itself with the same dignity to which the Christie family aspire.