Theatre: There's much ado, and it's all in perfect order

AFTER 25 productions, this is it. Declan Donnellan's Much Ado About Nothing, which arrives at the Playhouse, is Cheek by Jowl's last. A terrific way to go.

Everything in this exuberant production has been thought through with scrupulous intelligence. The soldiers returning from war enter an Edwardian world of silver tea-pots, elbow-length gloves and parasols: about as modern as you can get while still hanging on to a period in which a woman can ask her suitor to kill someone as a matter of honour.

Nick Ormerod's design of cotton banners combines with Judith Greenwood's lighting to give a strong sequential sense of one day going into the next as we move from dappled afternoon light to the evening glow of the party - where Saskia Reeves's frisky Beatrice has more bubble than the champagne - to the glare of the morning sun as they nurse their hangovers.

These officers are a boisterous public-school bunch who clearly need to mature. In this expertly delineated production, we see them do just that. Reeves is marvellously equal to their narrow back-slapping bonhomie. Her sharp tongue isn't merely cerebral: as she narrows her eyes, or feigns vomiting when Claudio makes a charming remark, her disdain springs from a physical impatience.

The period works well for Beatrice's rival: Matthew Macfadyen's lugubrious, upright Benedict has a drawling laugh, raised eyebrows and military bearing. His amused certainty comes from rank rather than intellect. It would madden any woman.

Time and again, actors reach the edge of the stage and argue their case. When they break back into scenes, Donnellan shapes them into powerful dramatic units. He is constantly inventive: using freezes, overlaps, slow motion, and concurrent scenes which sharpen our grasp of the narrative. He choreographs the company, using them as an element of stage design, to provide the physical context: a dance, a church service.

When Hero (Sarita Choudhury) collapses in church, water is called for, and her guilty attendant Margaret (Zoe Aldrich) takes a swig from the glass before handing it on to her mistress. When the immature Claudio (Bohdan Poraj) speaks his epitaph to Hero he reads from a piece of paper. Halfway through, genuine emotion breaks through and he bursts into tears. The ironies are delightful. In proper showbiz style, I hope this Much Ado is only the first of a number of exits that Cheek by Jowl will make.

The long arm of coincidence wraps itself right round Elton John's Glasses. A comedy by David Farr, the young former director of the Gate theatre, it started as Neville Southall's Washbag at the Finborough in 1992, opened at Watford with its present title, and now arrives - with Brian Conley - in the West End. Conley plays a lonely Watford supporter who believes the reason Everton took a 2-0 lead in the 1984 FA Cup Final was because the Watford keeper fumbled a cross after being dazzled by the sun bouncing off the glasses of the club chairman, Elton John.

If only this was the play's most improbable touch. Without giving it all away, Conley, an agoraphobic, nips out of his flat to have a kickaround with someone who turns out to be related to the woman with whom he has sex every Saturday afternoon. Then Conley's brother turns up at the flat with a stolen video machine, and the woman Conley has sex with on Saturday afternoons recognises from the label that the video is hers. But hang on, doesn't Conley's brother think he knows this woman from somewhere else? He sure does.

The trick with coincidences is to get them out of the way fast. Here, they are the evening's major turning points. Farr can be clever and funny, but the plot's contrivances wear us down. Director Terry Johnson provides dollops of efficient comic business. But as the improbabilities stack up, the final one is the sight of this rickety play in the West End.

You can see why Young Vic director Tim Supple chose to stage William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The big scenes suit the imaginative style Supple has been developing on the arena-like stage for narrative/physical theatre. The Bundren family have to lug their mother's coffin 40 miles to its place of burial. When they cross the Yoknapatawpha river, Supple stylishly captures the epic battle against the elements. But he could have stripped the story right back. The adaptor, Edward Kemp, cuts, splices and re-arranges Faulkner's monologues.

But the reliance on the novel's descriptive passages is heavy going. The cast hit us with statement after statement. One pleasure from an otherwise unyielding evening was seeing Sarah C Cameron and Thusitha Jayasundera - both uneasy in Twelfth Night - emerge as impressively sure in As I Lay Dying. Others were excellent twice. Robert Bowman was a preeningly funny Malvolio. He is just as compelling here as the crippled son Cash, catching an anxious thoughtfulness with filmic reserve.

The most exciting aspect of Brassed Off, the stage version of Mark Herman's movie, now at the National, is seeing the band. As the show opens, they march on to the darkened Olivier stage, the only light coming from their miners' lamps. It's a tribute to Paul Allen's adaptation and Deborah Paige's production that the show doesn't collapse the moment the band stops. In this heartfelt story, a threatened pit closure would also mean the end of the brass band, and the divisions among the mining community when faced with the tempting prospect of reduncancy pay are stressed. The blasts of authentic anger that rise off the stage turn out, unexpectedly, to be as stirring as the band itself.

`Much Ado': Playhouse, WC2 (0171 839 4401) to 25 Jul; `Elton John's Glasses': Queen's, W1 (0171 494 5040), to 26 Sept; `As I Lay Dying': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363), in rep to 21 Jul; `Brassed Off': Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000), to 24 Jun.

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