Greeted by designer Naomi Dawson’s impressive contemporary hotel set, with Paul Pyant’s clever use of lighting to mimic both the feel of a warm Mediterranean evening and the charged atmosphere of a club, the Rose Theatre Kingston’s production of Much Ado About Nothing effortlessly transports its audience to an idyllic holiday retreat in modern day Sicily with a thriving nightlife. Sadly, apart from the current set and lighting design and director Simon Dormandy’s choice to turn Don Pedro (Peter Guinness) and his henchmen into members of the mafia – a concept that works well – there is little that brings this production of Shakespeare’s 420-year-old play into the modern day.
The humour that the plot heavily relies upon often verges on slapstick. Beatrice (Mel Giedroyc) spends most of the first half in an inflatable cow costume presumably so that the line “God sends a curst cow short horns; but to a cow too curst he sends none” can have a literal meaning. Although it makes sense in the context of the script, with the group staging a fancy-dress party, it feels like they’re playing for laughs. Beatrice’s costume is meant to be hysterical – but it isn’t. From characters sticking their tongues out behind other characters’ backs to clumsy stage combat scenes, this production roots itself in the play’s farcical origins and never quite elevates itself to a comedy. Whilst farce suited Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, it perhaps doesn’t work so well today.
Giedroyc, best-known as one-half of Mel and Sue from The Great British Bake Off, does well as Beatrice despite the direction handed to her. Whilst she doesn’t command the stage quite like Catherine Tate did in the 2011 production of the play at Wyndham’s Theatre, Giedroyc seems to grow in confidence and shines by Act 4 where Beatrice asks Benedick (John Hopkins) to kill Claudio (Calam Lynch) following the dishonouring of young Hero (Kate Lamb). Giedroyc makes the most of one of the most farcical moments, as does Hopkins, in their respective scenes where they discover that the other is supposedly in love with them. Hopkins makes a likeable Benedick and you can’t help but crack a smile as he shimmies across the stalls, dodging groundlings sat on cushions, to eavesdrop on Don Pedro, Claudio and Balthazar (Silas Wyatt-Barke). Similarly, with Giedroyc hidden under a table as Hero and Ursula (Katherine Toy) cut roses for the wedding, spraying Beatrice with water and dropping flowers on her head as they work, it’s difficult not to see the humour in it, perhaps only made possible by a predetermined favour towards the nation’s baking sweetheart.
The most notable performance, however, comes from Lynch, who makes his professional theatre debut as Claudio. After being told of Hero’s alleged unfaithfulness, he spits an angry stream of abuse at her that is so far removed from the sweet Claudio seen in the early scenes and conveys convincingly the severity that would come with cheating on a mob member.
The production picks up pace in the second half as the plot moves away from the more farcical elements. There are small attempts at appealing to a modern audience, with a section of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet entertainingly slotted into an exchange between lovers Margaret (Victoria Hamnett) and Borachio (Nicholas Prasad) but unfortunately, the promise of Dawson’s cutting-edge set doesn’t match the quality of the performances. There is nothing revolutionary about this production. Much Ado About Nothing? I’m afraid so.