Newsflash: The war is over, the enemy defeated and the boys are back. It's Christmas and the Mediterranean Messina is swapped for a British upper-class mansion. The returning soldiers find themselves in Leonato's home where Beatrice and her cousin Hero greet them. It doesn't take long for Beatrice to pick a fight with Benedick, an old flame and sworn bachelor. There's still a spark there when the two of them engage in some verbal duelling, but alas – in this production – it's not quite right. Garry Summer's fidgety Benedick is not cocky enough to keep up with feisty Beatrice. Lines that need to stab merely poke and twists that need to surprise only arouse mild interest. Libby Evans' Beatrice is full of panache and intent but without the right chemistry between the central couple the balance of the play is in danger.
It wouldn't be too bad if the rest worked but there are just one too many misjudged directorial choices in the piece. Scarlett Clifford plays Hero as verdant debutante with a crush on the young Claudio (Andrew Venning). To have her constantly giggle like a schoolgirl makes the character appear a bit vaporous but in a production of Much Ado it's always a challenge to make any Hero anything less than a bit of a drag because she's such a passive character and a play-thing for men's whims. And it's true that we do feel for her when she is shamed and breaks down, with only Beatrice rooting for her.
The juicy villain is quickly found in Don John who here is presented as a repressed homosexual and Jack Lewis' interpretation works well within the setting. To clear away the villainous mess Gordon Ridout and Catherine Nix-Collins are brilliant as the gormless guards Dogberry and Verges tapping into the richness and the humour of the malaproprisms. The two might possibly be the best thing about the whole show. Unfortunately when they come to meet with Julian Bird's starched Leonato, the fun stops.
The overbearing sincerity of long stretches of the production obfuscate moments of real emotional punch. Sometimes the stiff upper lip tone of the chosen setting jars with the dramatic high points. When Claudio shames Hero and consequently Leonato condemns his daughter while she is at his feet sobbing one can't help but want to tell them to pull themselves together and have a cup of tea to calm their nerves. It's all a bit like Woodhouse without the wit. Some awkward blocking and laboured motivations for action do the rest.
Zarah Mansouri's set design is sparse but fittingly so reflecting the post-war austerity of the setting. There is, however, a defiant glamour in the Christmassy hue that's spread over the production including the rather elegant and gorgeous costume choices, even if the choice of Christmas as a time setting is purely decorative.
This production somehow manages to highlight the weak spots of the original while spoiling its own idea. Although there is a wonderful mime-only scene that provides some Benedick and Beatrice backstory I'm certain that the story would have been somewhat confusing for someone who has never seen the play done before.