Much Ado About Nothing

The Royal Exchange, Manchester

Into the harmonising dance that celebrates the end of Shakespeare's Much Ado, director Helena Kaut-Howson slips a reprise of Balthasar's song "Sigh no more ladies... Men were deceivers ever". Like the glimpse we also get at this point of the captive Don John, it does not disrupt the romance, but does leave a remembrance of the nearly desperate struggle between the sexes that is the matter beneath the play's familiar mirth.

The principal strength of this production lies in the definition of the women and of their side of the patriarchal medallion. This is obvious in the gripping scene in which Josie Lawrence's Beatrice challenges Benedick to prove his love. But it is equally evident in the beautifully played boudoir scene where Hero - a characterful Niamh Daly - is being prepared for her wedding. Here with her waiting-women we have a real sense of the world behind the veil.

This weighting lends particular interest to the men who are on the cusp of the male-female divide. Ewan Hooper's superb Leonato is central in displaying the ravening contradictions within such a father. Michael Mueller's Benedick is more problematical. Obviously, as the most confirmed among all these men's men, he doth protest too much, but he lacks the early insouciant confidence in his stance and his wit that will make the outbreak of the feminine within him the more interesting. When it does come, it is at first funny, then moving in the "kill Claudio" scene.

Not that it is easy to score points off Josie Lawrence in such high feather. She relies not a whit on any comedienne's ingratiation to deliver a performance that is charismatic, witty and, most important in this context, possessed of a fierce wisdom about her and her sex's situation.

However, expectations of a good laugh are not disappointed. The verbal sparring is unusually adept and intelligible, and, just when you thought it safe to go back to the Exchange's banquettes, the gulling scenes have Benedick disguising himself in the front row and Beatrice purloining a programme to conceal her lapwing flight. The razor play of John McAndrew's gratuitously sadistic Don John contributes another facet to an ebullient and thoroughly entertaining revival.

To 1 Nov, Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161-833 9833).