This modern version of Much Ado is set on a traverse stage that evokes a catwalk. Which is appropriate, because this is Shakespeare refashioned – or to use the shouty official description, reFASHIONed – by Selfridges, in a pop-up theatre built inside those halls of glittering jewellery and bags that cost more than many shows’ production budget. The company, well-respected fringe veterans The Faction, are decked out in high-fashion garb.
In all honesty, such glossy trappings add little, and the actors sometimes seem awkward on the bare, neon-lit catwalk stage. Pre-recorded rolling news footage on TV screens featuring bigger-name actors (Meera Syal; Simon Callow; Rufus Hound) – all very Baz Luhrmann – smacks of a producer with eyes on the wrong prize.
Fortunately, the cast actually putting the hours in are good. The play’s been pulled in tight by the laces and runs at an enjoyably brisk 100 minutes. They go fast at the verse, but under Mark Leipacher’s direction, it remains as clear as a Swarovski crystal.
Leonato is cross-cast to Leonata, which works in a modern setting – although it does lessen the sense of an oppressive, destructive patriarchy at play. But then, this production very much goes for good vibes and set-piece silliness, rather than mining the weird darkness of Shakespeare’s troubling rom-com.
I was never bowled over by the chemistry between Alison O’Donnell as a sulky, sarky Beatrice and Daniel Boyd as confident posh boy Benedick – but their separate scenes of being tricked into love are comic delights; Boyd’s giddy embarrassment at being suddenly smitten is particularly enjoyable. The stand-out, however, is Christopher Hughes as Don John – he infuses the villain with world-weariness and depths of pain, while remaining enjoyably dastardly, all flashing eyes and contemptuous sneers. Despite its effortful contemporary gimmicks, this Much Ado proves that good acting never goes out of fashion.