For one night only, the stunning Victoria Baths in Manchester is converted into the Messina Holiday Camp, as the Time & Again Theatre Company bring their touring production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ indoors into this stunning Edwardian water palace.
Substituting the location of Shakespeare’s most performed comedy from 16th Century Sicily to a 1950’s British seaside resort may seem incongruous, but it allows the deck chair and parasol props to be placed in an idealised fantasy world, utilising the sumptuous fabric of the building to create a convincing whole. In addition to the relocation, the company made the decision to cast some of the leading roles as female to represent the existence of same sex relationships in every period of history, even buttoned up post-war Britain. This allowed for some excellent female performances in roles that were ostensibly male in the original text. Benedick (Laura Crow in this leading role as well as co-directing) and Dona Joan (Jessica Ayres) were the most obvious beneficiaries of this recasting, with the latter particularly good playing the duplicitous Dona in a manner reminiscent of Cruella de Vil.
Excellent support was offered by Adam Martin Brooks as Claudio and Keziah Lockwood as Imogen (a brilliantly reimagined Uncle Antonio), both exploring the comedic elements to the fullest extent, also Peter Brassington gave clarity and exposition of the plot in the role of Friar. Even the Watch (local volunteer police in the original and by far my most disliked characters in all Shakespeare) managed to draw some humour from the malapropisms and stupidity of Dogberry (Tim Cooper), with them costumed as ‘Hi De Hi’ styled camp reps.
The inclusion of music into the piece was an unexpected delight with the full cast engaging in both song and dance throughout and recorded music signposting the plot with humour and invention. I was particularly delighted with the rendition of ‘Unchained Melody’ from Ghost during the Act IV wedding scene (if you know the plot you’ll appreciate the subtle humour) and similar gobbets were sprinkled throughout the production for the audience to discover.
However, the production did suffer due to some unfortunate directorial decisions regarding the staging in this particular venue. The choice to have the audience seated in the well of the pool whilst the ‘stage’ was at poolside led to terrible acoustics within the vast echoing vault of the Victoria Baths. Whilst this was partially rescued during the scenes staged within the pool, some of the best dialogue in the entire Shakespeare canon, from Beatrice (Megan Relph) and others, was inaudible for long periods. This in turn led to the majority of humour being physical and slapstick, rather than relying on the verbal ‘merry war’ that is intrinsic to the plot and the piece losing nuance and subtlety. In the same vein, the exaggerated humour allowed no room to explore the darker shades of the play, resulting in the more dramatic and serious scenes losing any real impact. I have no doubt that when staged ‘al fresco’ on the rest of the tour, these issues would disappear, but more thought and site specific blocking would have benefitted the production at this venue. Also, the laudable LGBTQ+ themes were not fully carried through, with large sections of the dialogue remaining in their original pronoun form and apt to cause confusion with audience members unfamiliar with the play.
Overall, a brave rendition of a classic comedy with some excellent ideas and themes but not fully developed to showcase the language and humour to its fullest extent.
Find out more about GM Fringe which continues all month visit https://www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 7th July 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★