The home fires are burning in Regent's Park

Much Ado About Nothing | Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London
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The Independent Culture

Though her actresses look fetching in their 1940s costumes (Nicola Redmond as Beatrice in fancy dress of top hat, white tie and tails, Sally Hawkins as Hero in a wedding gown of parachute silk), there seems no overwhelming reason for Rachel Kavanaugh to have set Much Ado About Nothing on the home front.

Though her actresses look fetching in their 1940s costumes (Nicola Redmond as Beatrice in fancy dress of top hat, white tie and tails, Sally Hawkins as Hero in a wedding gown of parachute silk), there seems no overwhelming reason for Rachel Kavanaugh to have set Much Ado About Nothing on the home front.

Not, that is, until Dogberry and the Watch come on. Their appearance, usually the signal for a quick nap, is greeted with cheers for Captain Mainwaring and the rest of his squad. Ian Talbot, the artistic director of the New Shakespeare Company, is made up as a dead ringer, and is even funnier than the original. The constable's indignation is no longer simply personal. His captives have insulted, in him, the entire war effort, as he coldly tells his comrades to remember that: "I. Am. An Ass."

John Conroy's loveable Verges provides the perfect foil, beaming benevolently on his men and giving them an elaborately silly demonstration of how to "stand easy".

The clowns, however are no more comic than the rest of Kavanaugh's production, which in every scene shows her control and invention. As Beatrice, desperate to eavesdrop on her cousins, scrabbles along the grass verge, Hero's comment that she turns every man "the wrong side out" captures her with her bottom in the air. Timothy Kightley's Leonato, a less skilful lawyer than his kinswomen, begins by nibbling at his porkies uncertainly. With increasing confidence, he gets carried away, then subsides, and then rallies, to end with such suavity that he is not thrown by an accidental handclasp with the poorly concealed Benedick.

With one hand on her hip and the other at shoulder height, holding a cigarette, Nicola Redmond is a hieroglyph of Mayfair sophistication, circa 1925, clearly imprisoned for too long in her brittle self-protectiveness. This Beatrice chatters about leading apes into hell as if it's terribly boring but what everyone's doing these days. Beneath the lacquered surface, though, she is capable and self-possessed - so much so that "Kill Claudio" is her only line that falls flat. One doesn't feel, then or later, that Claudio is in any danger from this lady or her genial suitor.

But, if Tom Mannion's Benedick is easygoing, he is hardly negligible. Indeed, in this Regent's Park season, so otherwise lacking, this actor alone practically restores the balance of virility. Mannion delivers even his most contemptuous insults to Beatrice with a confident grace that draws their sting. His west Scotland accent (sensibly matched with physical restraint) is a hearty contrast to Beatrice's drawing-room airs, and he uses it to ringing effect, notably in his argument with himself about marriage: "The wo rrrld", he declares, "must be peopled!"

There are a few weak spots in Kavanaugh's cast - Tam Williams's petulant Claudio and Harry Burton's hapless Don John - and the darkness suggested by the wartime setting is never really acknowledged. Otherwise, though, this Much Ado is an evening of intelligent delight.

In repertory, until 7 Sept, 020-7486 2431

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