Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Globe London

Sex and the single girl-boy
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The Independent Culture

There are actors who know how to seduce the audience at the Globe and how to charm the pants off those groundlings, and there are those who don't. Josie Lawrence has the knack in spades. She works the crowd with consummate - though never contemptuous - ease.

There are actors who know how to seduce the audience at the Globe and how to charm the pants off those groundlings, and there are those who don't. Josie Lawrence has the knack in spades. She works the crowd with consummate - though never contemptuous - ease.

The naturalness of her command of the space and the lovely way she never has to exaggerate or to break sweat by mugging emerge as two of the main pleasures afforded by Tamara Harvey's engaging, all-female, Elizabethan-dress revival of Much Ado About Nothing in which Lawrence plays the confirmed, then unconfirmed, bachelor Signor Benedick.

I must confess that I approached the production with some trepidation. The side of me that believes in justice and equal opportunities) applauds the Globe's initiative in balancing the Shakespearean convention of all-male casts with their female equivalents. But last year's Richard III highlighted a problem. There's a numerical bias in these works: in any single-sex revival, women have to play far more men than men have to play women. So there's the risk for the former of coming across like some upmarket version of the end-of-term drama at a girls' school.

Harvey's Much Ado About Nothing suggests that comedy lends itself to the all-female treatment more co-operatively and creatively than tragedy. It's a genre that relishes transformation and gender-bending.

Even in a piece like Much Ado, where nobody actually clambers into drag, you feel it's acknowledged that everyone would understand themselves and the world better if they were obliged to swap sexual roles for a time.

Here, ironically, it's the role of Beatrice which, for my taste, is disappointingly acted. Vocally strained, full of forced, gesticulatory energy and lacking in the brilliant/sad social sophistication of the character, Yolanda Vasquez has pitched her performance too far down the continuum that links Beatrice and Kate the Shrew, that other, rather more aggressive, misfit who spiritedly resists recognizing that her sparring partner may be her soulmate.

The production has an infectious verve and is choreographed with mischievousness. It's the offhand, take-it-or-leave-it quality of some of the fun that impresses most. What really tickled me weren't the eavesdropping episodes (Beatrice and Benedick secreted behind flowering trellises and plummeting to earth like shot pheasants at what they overhear). I laughed more at Sarah Woodward's hilarious Dogberry, the verbally challenged Master Constable. The dotty solemnity and serenely misplaced confidence with which he goes on a professional tour of inspection of the stage (his tubby deputy trotting behind) are projected with wonderfully relaxed and ridiculous timing.

With long, strawberry blonde hair and whiskers, Lawrence's Benedick is a delightful mix of the strapping and the unsure. The lugubrious Brummie tones accentuate the likeable curmudgeonliness of his responses and underline his status as a bit of an oddball. The sudden dips of tone and hustled variations of pace in the actress's delivery eloquently communicate the hero's comic embarrassment, haplessly straddled between crusty bachelor conventions and newly aware matrimonial hope.

But this is a Benedick who is wittily able to parody his old self right to the end. "Come, I will have thee," he says to Beatrice in the final scene, and the resigned, sighing intonation is that of someone stoically agreeing to shoulder a crippling burden. How well Lawrence makes that mock-insult sound like roundabout romance.

In rep to 25 September (020-7401 9919)

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