Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Until Saturday, February 26

IF there’s one thing the audience can rely upon Theatre Royal productions of Shakespeare’s works to do, it’s to lead them neatly through the often convoluted and confusing plots and language.

The Bard is rendered accessible and relevant by regular director Abigail Anderson and his lack of stage directions seized upon as a cue to cultivate comedic potential.

Actors deliver the language in a clear manner and countless physical clues to meaning are a huge help.

Much Ado certainly begins in a storm of wit and one-liners, as Benedick and Beatrice spar with each other, hurling insults like spears and vowing never to be married.

Nicholas Tizzard will be remembered by Theatre Royal audiences as the servant in last year’s The London Merchant. Here he steps up to produce a warm, witty and charming performance, with lovely comedic touches, both verbal and physical. There is a hint of Hugh Laurie about him as he lies, dangling one leg off the stage to bring the audience into his musings about the woman he would marry – but of course never will.

He is brilliant in Act Two, Scene Three, using all manner of hilarious ‘hiding places’ as he eavesdrops on Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio setting him up for a fall with Beatrice.

Here, the clever set comes into its own, movable flats providing new cover.

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Opposite him is Polly Lister, a matronly Beatrice with the requisite sharp tongue, who conveys a real sense of the vulnerability of her position just beneath the spiky exterior. The couple spark off each other but provide more touching moments, especially when they finally declare their mutual love in Act Four.

It is that relationship that lives in the memory from Much Ado and yet so much of the play is far darker – aided in this production by a change of light from warm, sunny tones to a colder blue.

After the fun and frivolity of the first half, the main plot takes over and there are long, angst-ridden stretches as Hero (heartfelt Ellie Kirk) is cast out by Claudio (Ben Deery) and damned by all the men around her.

Michael Onslow returns to the theatre where he made a marvellous Malvolio two years ago and his Don Pedro is a solid, bass foil to the skittish crew around him. Nick Underwood provides one of the more memorable scenes as drunken Borachio, ad-libbing to great effect and clearly enjoying every moment: breaking off mid-slurred speech to say “bless you” to a sneezing audience member was just perfect.

The problem with Much Ado, as one of those Shakespeare plays which combines the light and the dark of human nature, is that there are not – in spite of Dogberry’s best efforts – enough laughs after the break. But that’s the Bard’s fault not the actors’ and this production is worth savouring for when the warmth and wit are on top.

MARK CROSSLEY

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