OVO Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing gets transplanted to a 50s American diner in the ruins of the Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans, and to great effect
“I saw him scurrying away in melancholy like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause“
A first trip to St Albans for me, and to the atmospheric surroundings of the Roman Theatre of Verulamium, where OVO Theatre have established quite the reputation for open-air Shakespeare alongside their more regular programming at the Maltings Theatre. And the prospect of a Much Ado About Nothing drenched in 1950s Americana was one that piqued my interest, even if the well-realised shiny set design sits a little incongruously among the Roman ruins.
Adam Nichols and Janet Podd’s bold re-envisioning of the play pays dividends in all sorts of unexpected ways – this is Messina but not as we know it. We find ourselves in 1959 at Leonata’s Bar and Grill, a fine music venue somewhere in the Midwest, where the crew of the USS Gull are to rock up after a tour in the Far East. And in a bit of extratextual business at the beginning, we see Leonata’s daughter Hero Beyoncé her way into the role of lead singer in up-and-coming band The Sonnettes. The name of the woman she replaced? Joanna.
It’s all part of the cleverness of the adaptation that this works on two levels. If you don’t know the play, it makes its own sense; but if you are familiar with it, replacing Don Juan in this manner is a neat little twist indeed. And in terms of the revenge that Joanna exacts throughout, it makes a compelling and convincing rationale. The 50s setting also fits well with the crucial notion of shame, which is lent a bruising, aching power in the shift to a mother/daughter relationship.
Lucy Crick’s sinuous Joanna and Anna Franklin’s open-hearted and genial Leonata rightly make the most of the gender-switch with strong performances. But this play rides on its Beatrice and Benedick and this production has cast perfectly with Faith Turner and Peter Bryans absolutely revelling in this timeless love story. Their connection is less love/hate than love/mild-dislike, such is the strength of their chemistry, and Turner really does give a wonderful sense of her own character to her memorable Beatrice.
This is also a production full of music, played live under Tom Cagnoni’s musical direction. And whilst an obvious crowd-pleaser in terms of throwing in any number of classic tunes and full-company choreographed numbers, there were perhaps a few too many of them for my liking, particularly when there was little sense of them advancing the plot. The ones that were most effective were character-based, as in Joanna purring through ‘Walk Like An Angel’, or Beatrice’s discovery of Benedick’s feelings soundtracked by ‘At Last’.
I’m being a little picky because there was so much that was so good here. The gulling scenes were a riot of catering trolleys and cream pies, mannequins and madcap antics. And that boldness to the adaptation here which I found hugely refreshing, not least because several people around me were seeing the play for the first time and I love that they got to see such a positive gender-spin thereon. Also, the interval brownies were a thing of a wonder. Hie thee to St Albans, there’s something a little special here.