Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing' at Selfridges, 26th August 2016

There's something very 'off' about heading to Selfridges for a play. With its classical facade and Ionic columns the building is a literally a temple to luxury consumerism. Wealthy punters from around the world swarm around the counters like bees around flowers. Places like this (and their Harrods/Harvey Nicksy siblings) aren't for me, I neither want (nor can afford) anything they sell and the glassy-eyed, preeningly vain hubbub gives me a headache in about five minutes flat.

But hey, I'm all up for theatre in odd places, and if I have to descend into the throbbing belly of London luxury capitalism to see it then so be it. This Much Ado About Nothing is the inaugural production of Selfridges' 'reFASHIONed Theatre', located behind a nondescript door in the basement, near luggage and 'contemporary jewellery'. The show slots neatly into Selfridges' Shakespeare season, commemorating 400 years since his death with a variety of activities.

The freshly minted theatre proves to be a snazzy traverse construction of reflective black and plastic, punctuated by glowing columns and primary coloured underlighting. It's half catwalk, half nightclub - my pre-show impressions were that it was designed to allow the audience to admire the outfits of those sat opposite them as much as the play.

But the moment Faction Theatre's production begins, all the background frippery falls away and the audience settles into as surefooted a Shakespearian production as I've seen. The show is a pacy 90 minutes without interval, yet successfully condenses down the ur-romcom to its basic elements without losing coherency.

Plotwise, it's impressive how much Shakespeare managed to prefigure Richard Curtis and his ilk by a couple of centuries. You've got your classic mismatched cuties in Beatrice and Benedick, who immediately prove how perfect a couple they'd be by reacting to the other with instant disgust. On top of that are the mutant parody of starcrossed lovers, Claudio and Hero, a couple wrenched apart by a complex series of misunderstandings and minor betrayals. But this is no great war story or sober examination of the human condition - it's a frothy little comedy that ends, like all good romcoms should, with a bevvy of weddings and smiles and smooches all round.

The greatest hurdle any Shakespearian production must overcome is the language barrier. Whilst this is indisputably some of the greatest writing that English has ever produced, it's also incredibly dense and complex. The worst Shakespearian plays crash headlong into it; inexperienced (or untalented) casts tending to recite rather than perform. No such problems here - everything is fluid, clear and with a carefully pitched for humour. My litmus test of a successful Shakespeare comedy is whether audiences laugh at the 350 year old gags, and this passes with flying colours.

Much of this is down to the nicely tuned performances, the best of which stretch how broad you can play the roles. Most obviously excellent is Daniel Boyd's Benedick; every single inter-line vocal twiddle and fidget calculated to perfection. Boyd is possessed of an enviable innate funniness, winning over audiences almost instantly, drawing laughs with just about everything he does. 

Alison O'Donnell's Beatrice is a great foil for him, establishing her character as someone who takes no shit from anyone. Beatrice is a tricky role to play; suffering from the old character problem of being most interesting when she's most abrasive. As she softens and admits her feelings for Benedick a lesser actor might lose character focus. Not O'Donnell, who maintains the snappy, headstrong and forthright core of the role right up to the curtain core.

Those are the best two, but no-one's slacking off here. This gaggle of energetic performances sweeps the audience up in a tornado. When you've seen as many shows (and specifically Shakespeare) as I have you can tell when an audience is engaged and when they're not: and everyone here, young and old, Shakespeare newbs and old hands were lapping this up.

The only real trip-up are the pre-recorded video performances of Meera Syal, Simon Callow and Rufus Hound. It's not impossible to incorporate performances like this into a show, but it's bloody difficult to make it look natural. In fact, the only time I've seen it truly work was to simulate an on-stage Skype call, which has its own slightly unnatural pauses and glitches. Here, it's stilted and awkward, painfully obvious that the characters are reacting to a television screen rather than people. It doesn't exactly help that Simon Callow is clearly reading his lines from just below the camera.

This unfortunateness aside; this Much Ado About Nothing is an impressively accessible slice of Shakespeare. It's entertaining, heartwarming and has a contemporary pop sheen, but doesn't lose sight of the complexity that powers this play's engine. I didn't know what to expect when picking through a makeup counter while trying to find a theatre, but I'm pleased to report that this is well worth braving the ravenous Oxford Street crowds for.


Little Shop of Horrors is at The reFASHIONed Theatre, Selfridges until 24th September. Tickets here.

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