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FringeReview UK 2024

Low Down

This is high summer in a backward May. Sean Holmes’ Much Ado About Nothing, playing at the Globe till August 24th follows Lucy Bailey’s stunning 2022 reading with its near-tragedy, amplitude and rich set.

It’s a triumph of tone, of textual intercourse and tight-reined spirits. Orange is plucked from blue and Beatrice’s star is dancing. It’ll stay fresh as the feelgood Shakespeare this summer.


Directed by Sean Holmes (Assistant Director Naeem Hayat), Designer Grace Smart.

Composer Grant Olding, Mandolin Polly Bolton, Musical Director/Guitar/Mandolin Charlie Laffer, Woodwind Isreal Ola Akindipe, Percussion Saleem Raman,   Accordion Alise Silina

Movement Director Tamsin Hurtado-Clark, Globe Associate Movement Glynn MacDonald, Costume Supervisor Jacquie Davies.  Fight and Intimacy Director Maisie Carter.

Head of Voice Tess Dignan, Voice Coach Liz Flint. Text Consultant Simon Trinder, Wellbeing, Cultural and Diversity Consultant Carol Cumberbatch

Head of Stage Bryan Paterson, Head of Props Emma Hughes, Head of Wigs and Make-Up Gilly Church. Casting Becky Paris, Production Manager Wills, Stage Manager Rachel Middlemore, Deputy Company Manager Kristy Bloxham, Stage Management Placement Charlie Henley-Castleden, DSM Katherine Huddleston, ASM Gabi Coomber, Producer Tamsin Mehta, Assistant Producer Sharni Lockwood.

Till August 24th


This is high summer in a backward May. Sean Holmes’ Much Ado About Nothing, playing at the Globe till August 24th follows Lucy Bailey’s stunning 2022 reading with its near-tragedy, amplitude and rich set.

Holmes has come a long way from his finale-sawn-off days of 2022, and last year started deep engagements with fuller text, as in The Winter’s Tale. Yet he’s pacey too and gets a lot in. The result is two hours 45 of details we’ve not seen for years, like Claudio’s callow quips even after his remorse. It breathes in a knockabout air; but exhales poinards. There’s even some new-minted Bene-dick jokes.

It’s definitely Sicily, Grace Smart’s set of  orange baskets with real oranges (Benedick tosses them peeled into the crowd), and trees with deeper oranges contrast with the blue metal gantries twined round the stage’s two columns. Orange, we’re reminded, is also the colour of jealousy.

Jacquie Davies’ fabulous costumes too are performatively period, full of clanking armour. Though orange wasn’t a Renaissance colour as Davies points out, orange emblazons the stage rioting in costume with blues, mustards and dark greens: some actors change too. Sumptuary laws would have been invoked. Visually it’s a feast even if you don’t get to eat an orange.

The set-piece masked ball in lion (for Leonato), gadfly-ish butterfly and what looks like giant pigeon costumes are the one point Holmes lets the festive rip, and it’s a burst of sunshine after so much rain, a riot of licence and sly fun.

The audience is wooed more than normally too, and play hard (one woman fans herself wildly after Benedick kisses her hand). Holmes has rethought the play in details often lopped off, yet keeping the production at a lick that makes it infectious, yet uneasy: it’s the edgiest of the festal comedies. Holmes mostly makes us see it could all go badly.

And Grant Olding’s music is not only flecked with Sicilian with its mandolin/guitar-led ensemble (Charlie Laffer, Polly Bolton, Isreal Ola Akindipe on woodwind, Saleem Raman percussion, Alise Silina on accordion) it’s a small festival in itself, and excites some unexpected singing.

John Lightbody’s Leonato exudes fuddy warmth, anger over Hero, a man willing to challenge his prince and snatch dignity out of bluster. It’s an authoritative performance.

Colm Gormley’s Antonio wears an elder mantle with a guest’s freedom. Emma Ernest’s buoyant Margaret brings zing to her earthy role. Lucy Reynolds multi-roles as a quick-witted Ursula in that tiny part and pops up on the watch too.

Ryan Donaldson’s relatively youthful Don Pedro seems more plausibly kin to Claudio’s gullibility. He certainly contrasts with Robert Mountford’s “plain villain” Don John, invested here with sad deliberation. He’s no Iago, but someone savouring malice because it’s what bastards do. Mountford, excelling as Parolles in 2018, stamps him with a vestigially swervy humanity.

Calum Callaghan’s Borachio is almost winning in his nasty mission. Truculent, self-delighting, he’s also painfully sincere in his remorse. Dharmesh Patel’s Conrade is as saturnine as Don John paints him, sneering in his “gentleman” assertion. His Friar Francis is able to exert real command though: about as vivid as a quasi-Anglican priest can be in Italy.

Amalia Vitale’s Beatrice stands apart. She seems born to play Beatrice, every look a punchline, every sally beautifully timed. Yet capable of tearing passion. Scornful and funny, she’s devastatingly clear too, speeding up when occasion demands it but reflective, taking her time to speak not poinards, but as amended here “daggers” when poinards were fine in 2022.

There’s reserves of wit struck off Ekow Quartey’s Benedick, a role where he normally comes a good second. His clarity can equal Vitale, his burly authority on stage marking him out as a different kind of soldier to impetuous brattish Claudio, or the prince. Quartey steals comic fire in his bewilderment that Beatrice loves him. His pause before “There’s a double meaning in that” is exquisite.

It’s a farcical pre-echo of men believing their own sex as Benedick shuffles behind or on top of the blue gantry round one of the columns or crouches within inches of apparently oblivious friends.

Such farce is almost outdone by Vitale’s Beatrice. She’s equally sent slithering about through the groundlings and up on stage like an axolotl; to eavesdrop on people turning away as if she doesn’t exist

The double overhearings are  normally set-pieces. Holmes allows them some room, but though this is the Globe, there’s none of the extended hard-working farce of Bailey or the NT production, also from 2022: a plus.

The electrifying climax of Act IV/1 though is where this comedy overleaps greater ones with a mutually astonished admission of love, and Beatrice’s “Kill Claudio” moment. There’s nothing outside Romeo and Juliet to compare with this tragic intensity. Bailey’s production managed this more than any other production I’ve seen.

Quartey and particularly Vitale through tears are as intense and truthful and any couple I’ve seen, and clearer-voiced. They’re playing it straight but the audience still think it’s a comedy and keep laughing. A pity as it’s clear they want the emotions to tell.

It might show how Holmes hasn’t quite let the Act IV near-tragedy seep in and high spirits drop. And at the end there’s a wrong-headed musical interlude which blows away the possibility that Beatrice can run off weeping, actually dreading Claudio’s death, despite herself. Hero will be bereft, Benedick marked. At this point it should seem it’ll end in tragedy.

Lydia Fleming’s Hero and Adam Wadsworth’s Claudio are both as strong as their roles permit. Their union might be the plot’s mainspring but they’re also Gavin and Stacey; a stronger couple always steal the show. Nevertheless, Fleming’s allowed more vivacity, spirit, time to grow into outrage and playfulness by turns, particularly in the masked ball where everyone loosens up.

Wadsworth’s role is here allowed redemption in tears, as this Claudio’s often prone to it. But Holmes has let the text damn Claudio too: even after his penance he jokes at the second wedding. He’s sharp enough to make his confirmation of Benedick’s challenge believable. However he’s been duped and however little he yet values women, he’s not the cipher he can be.

Jonnie Broadbent’s Dogberry makes a beautifully modulated ass of himself, with some delicious hesitations. Holmes though is for getting as much of the play in as possible, and like the overhearing scenes, these are briskly dispatched. Gormley (as Verges) luxuriates in malapropisms too.

The revelation though is Peter McGovern’s George Seacole. Though scorned as less lucid than Dogberry, he in fact delivers the evidence with commendable dispatch and cut-through to Reynolds’ pop-up Justice.

Apart from some seriousness in Act IV/I this lands in all the right places; everything and everyone sings. Those new to it will enjoy the fullest impression.

It’s a triumph of tone, of textual intercourse and tight-reined spirits. Orange is plucked from blue and Beatrice’s star is dancing. It’ll stay fresh as the feelgood Shakespeare this summer.