Northern Broadsides & the New Vic
The Lowry, Quays Theatre
7 May 2019 – 11 May 2019; 2hr 55min inc 20min interval
Northern Broadsides’ versions of Shakespeare are always fun. For one thing, hearing the lines in north-of-England accents often makes them come alive in a way that never happens with Received Pronunciation. Phrases like ‘O Lord…’ and ‘God help me…’ (both are in this play) just sound natural.
For another, they never knowingly undersell the laughs in his comedies, and Conrad Nelson’s production of Much Ado About Nothing – his last for Broadsides – is no exception. In fact its first half teeters on the edge of being too laid back and laugh-a-minute, so that the temporary twist into desperate tragedy, when it comes, is quite hard to take seriously. We ideally should have seen it coming and should believe that all those histrionics, as bright young lad Claudio jilts his true love Hero at the altar are for real.
The transposed setting, from Shakespeare’s Mediterranean fantasy, is a great idea. We’re in England’s green and pleasant country at the end of the Second World War, and the Land Girls are still harvesting their veg to feed the nation, while the Battle of Britain airmen are still in uniform but thinking of bucolic delights and life after conflict. It gives point to the two ‘camps’ of unattached men and women we meet at the outset, and you forget the formal titles in the script.
What’s more, when Dogberry and the Watch appear, they’re Dad’s Army and friends, and nasty Borachio is not just a drunk but a 1940s spiv.
Add in a playlist of songs from the era – because this is an all-instrument-playing, nearly-all-dancing company, too – and you have a nice period feel to the whole thing (alongside other references such as Laurel and Hardy’s hats).
I rather fancy, too, that some of the acting style models were taken from the post-war era – Robin Simpson’s Benedick gets his laughs with a old-style comedian’s meaningful looks at the audience … and when he actually gets down there with them manages to corpse the lot of them back up on the stage. David Nellist’s Dogberry is a Geordie – no hesitation about playing to type there – and James McLean’s Watchman is in comic camp mode.
It’s quite un-PC and maybe a little bit self-indulgent, but they’re having fun – in particular Mr Nellist’s early small-part interventions last night of ‘I trained at RADA…’ (as the Boy), and ‘I played Hamlet in Halifax’ – and so do we.
They've got a multi-talented cast, with Richard J Fletcher as Don John (and Sexton), Rachel Hammond as Ursula, Sophia Hatfield as Margaret, Anthony Hunt as Borachio, Linford Johnson as Claudio, Sarah Kameela Impey as Hero, Isobel Middleton as Beatrice, Heather Phoenix as Conrade, Matt Rixon as Don Pedro, Simeon Truby as Leonato,, Robert Wade as Balthasar and Andrew Whitehead as Antonio.
A big credit also to Rebekah Hughes, the musical director. Quite apart from the instrumental abilities, the dancing (Beverley Norris Edmunds the choreographer) and the hit songs, these people can produce a very nice barbershop quartet and a gorgeous choral ensemble for There is no rose.
Of course Beatrice and Benedick really do love each other, Claudio and Hero are reconciled, it ends happily and the broad sunlit uplands are there for all to see. You can’t say fairer than that.