Review: Much Ado About Nothing, East London Shakespeare Festival

Much enamoured of East London Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing, a wonderfully family-friendly take on the play

“He that hath a beard is more than a youth”

I love that the East London Shakespeare Festival takes each aspect of its name seriously. Presenting Much Ado About Nothing – tick, across a range of venues in Waltham Forest, Hackney, Redbridge and more – tick, and nurturing real festival energy with pre-show mask-making workshops, banging tunes like ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and ‘Airplanes’ threaded throughout the show, and a blissfully chilled community vibe that feels like theatre at its most impactful for young minds (and those young at heart).

Directed by Rosie Ward, this is a distinctly modern take on Much Ado…. We first meet Beatrice catching a flight from Luton to Messina, fleeing to the Mediterranean to escape a broken heart and down a few brightly coloured cocktails. For this Messina is a party town and that plays out in the production as a whole, heavier on merriment than melancholy which pretty much feels right here – it’s not often you get to wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care with Shakespeare!

Ursula Early’s bright Beatrice is soon reunited with Kieran Garland’s big-hearted Benedick and it is clear that for this couple, the past is recent history. Their scenes crackle with as much repressed passion as repartee – even when masked they can’t resist each other – and there’s a delightful generosity of spirit to the way in which they push and pull apart and together, particularly when their antics spills out into the audience area where not even your sausage rolls are safe.

That screwball energy is present elsewhere too – the gulling scenes are remarkably even-handed in putting both Benedick and Beatrice through the wringer in some highly entertaining ways (the splash gag is still making me chuckle now). And Londiwe Mthembu and Isambard Rawbone double up brilliantly as Hero and Verges, and Claudio and Dogberry respectively, the Watch scenes hilariously rendered as a team of rap-loving valets securing justice with the help of just a little audience participation.

I loved the unexpected nod to Richard Curtis and airports in the final scene, I loved Don Pedro as a woman (Lauren Hendricks impressing as a Balthasar/Margaret lounge singing hybrid too), I really liked the incorporation of a locally sourced community cast too, given their moment to shine with a sonnet at the top of Act 2 as well as fleshing out some of the busier scenes. Andrew Hollingworth’s cleverly conceived design of painted panels and boxes does much to ensure paciness and sets the scene for this cheerily inventive and highly engaging production.

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