Theatre Review: Seriously funny

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Much Ado About Nothing

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Amid today's cut-and-thrust of marketing angles, pairing a popular TV comedy star with Shakespeare's brand of wit and word-play makes obvious commercial sense, but in this case the headline casting of Elaine C Smith - aka Mrs Rab C Nesbitt - also succeeds brilliantly in theatrical terms. As the mettlesome Beatrice, waging "a kind of merry war" with Forbes Masson's similarly sparkling Benedick - the Thompson-Branagh roles in the film - she gives a robust yet eloquently precise performance which wins all the more laughs by refusing to play for them. While and Masson unquestionably shine the brightest, however, making wonderfully subtle work of all the best lines, virtually the whole of Kenny Ireland's production - revisiting the play with which the Lyceum opened in 1883 - displays a winning combination of weight and vivacity, its sprightly comic pace matched by an assured collective handling of both language and character.

With its twin unfolding love stories, its verbal fencing and deceptions both light-and-black-hearted, Much Ado in some ways resembles the masked ball that occurs in Act 2, and there's a definite air of the dance about the cast's neatly-drilled ensemble work, smoothly driven by the rhythms of the text, deftly facilitated by Russell Craig's ingeniously simple, sunny-yellow set. In terms of narrative structure, Smith and Masson anchor the parallels with perfectly-matched timing and poise, both superbly at ease with their densely-configured dialogue, each supplying a clear and sympathetic sense of the private emotions beneath the bantering public face. As the more conventional foil to their singularly spiky wooing, Adam Robertson's Claudio and Caroline Devlin's Hero strike the requisite courtly note, though Robertson's wooden, passionless delivery stands in unfortunate contrast to the prevailing liveliness, while in Hero's case a certain tension was evident between Shakespeare's passive blushing maid and the rather feistier young woman Devlin seemed inclined to play.

Ireland's careful balancing of light and shade, froth and substance is ably sustained by the supporting cast, with Michael Mackenzie as Don Pedro alternating convincingly between stern authority and off-duty playfulness, Tom McGovern's Don John providing an effectively dastardly villain, and even most of the minor roles picked out in animated colour and detail. Despite the predominant mood of merriment, therefore, Claudio's false accusation of Hero thus carries genuinely dark dramatic force, our thorough engagement with the characters vividly conveying the charge's familial and social reservations. Elsewhere, though, the merriment is real and copious - this is that rare thing, Shakespeare with belly laughs, though without cheapness or compromise, the comedy brought fully and dynamically alive by a director and cast evidently revelling in its virtuosity.

To 22 Nov (0131-229 9697)

Sue Wilson

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