Much Ado About Nothing, Novello Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Most of the virtues that made it such a thoughtful and energetic joy in Stratford seem to have become even more enhanced in this London transfer of Marianne Elliott's splendid production of Much Ado About Nothing.

True, the proceedings are now positioned within the proscenium arch of the Novello Theatre, whereas in Warwickshire they spilled into the audience's lap on the thrust stage of the more intimate Swan. But it's remarkable how well Elliott retains a punter-embracing sense of whooping, dangerously giddy fiesta, as the demob-happy soldiers lose in the peace via a bout of misogyny that, in this Madonna-whore culture, you feel is just waiting to happen (the interpretation relocates Messina in 1950s Cuba, in the era just before the Castro revolution).

As Beatrice and Benedick - the sparring oddballs whose cranky unconventionality proves its worth when they jointly defy the mainstream macho values of the place - Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson manage to surpass the wonderfully funny display of reluctant mutual fascination and underlying ardour that they put on in Stratford.

The handsome Millson is one of those rare actors who can combine the romantic and the ridiculous. It's beautifully clear from his expertly pointed and plosive delivery of the lines that this blustering bachelor is in denial about his own finer feelings. He gives an audience free access to his heart, even when he is clowning like mad, as he does in the eavesdropping scene, collapsing backwards in amazement with the tall plant he fondly imagines is providing him with cover.

And he has the knack of flashing acute sensitivity without letting up on the fun. There's real depth to the way this Benedick comes to understand that mocking wit can erect a defensive barrier against life: "a college of witcrackers cannot flout me out of my humour... since I do purpose to marry..."

Greig now takes to the stage with a commanding assurance. She does not play Beatrice as the poor relation who feels she has to use wit to sing for her supper. Instead, clad in slinky black and appreciably older than the rest of the pony-tailed, coltish girls, she shows you a woman whose brilliantly timed drop-dead put-downs are in danger of becoming a restricting routine. It's not that she doesn't plunge in to the social whirl - indeed, she intrepidly takes the initiative in joining the sexy masked samba with the soldiers. It's that, out on a limb where love is concerned, she seems to have mislaid her sense of boundaries.

In their great scene alone together, when Benedick blurts out his love for Beatrice in the turbulent aftermath of the public slandering of Hero (Morven Christie), the two actors are genuinely revelatory in the precarious mood they create between relief and increasing tension, weepy laughter and grief-stricken tears, the eloquent silence of hungry kisses and renewed rowing.

Elliott surrounds them with a world of richly layered detail - from the furious patriarchy and doting compunction of Nicholas Day's lucid, impassioned Don Leonato and the old guard, to the faintly homoerotic horseplay of the demobbed regiment (Adam Rayner's skilfully callow Claudio and Patrick Robinson's brooding Don Pedro).

The evening is full of illuminating touches - the Dutch courage that the bride and her handmaidens swig on the fateful wedding morning, which they jokily pass off to Beatrice as a medicine gallingly dubbed "Benedictus"; the furtive manner in which Hero signals to her father that an instant marriage would not be a good idea and that three days' wait is in order (little does she know how inadequate that, too, will be). And Bette Bourne and Steven Beard are deliciously funny as Dogberry and Verges, the former a camp creature strutting around in a fog of folie de grandeur, the latter his hapless gay partner ineffectually flapping behind him. This is one of the highlights of the Complete Works Season and it is great that London now gets the chance to enjoy it.

To 6 January (08700 950 0940)

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