Event review: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ by Theatre Workshop Coulsdon, 29th July – 8th August

By - Wednesday 29th July, 2015

There was a star danced over Coulsdon Manor Hotel. Liz Sheppard-Jones followed it

Photo by Theatre Workshop Coulsdon, used with permission.

“Oh, do we have to?” said my 13 year old as we headed off to Coulsdon. “It’ll all be ‘hath’ and ‘doth’ and ‘quoth’”.

Let’s save ourselves a lot of time here: yes, you do have to, and one day you’ll thank me. But I sympathise – Shakespeare in the classroom is forbidding. There’s the language barrier, plots can be challenging, it’s stiff as a board, and a bunch of reluctant teenagers won’t easily find laughter, passion, catharsis and the affirmation of life under that lot.

But all of these, and more, are waiting to be discovered in Theatre Workshop Coulsdon’s open air production of Much Ado About Nothing at Coulsdon Manor Hotel. I’d not been there before, and from the moment we set out on a (short) walk through the woods to the stage encircled by trees, which creates a naturally intimate space yet keeps all the energy of a outdoor performance, I left the hassles of my day in Croydon behind in the carpark.

This wondrous comedy with the darkest possible shadows

Music from the Mediaeval Baebes was an inspired choice as we took our seats – beautiful and calming, it nevertheless brings with it the chill of loss, the transience of joy, the necessity of dancing while we can to celebrate this day of being alive. As a child I’d have called it ‘sad-happy’ music, and there’s no better way to set the scene for this wondrous comedy with the darkest possible shadows.

It’s all about Benedick and Beatrice, of course – surely two of the hottest ever literary lovers (and here I would love to digress). These two have totally got it on and the actors get it too (to the point where I asked my younger son what the best bit was and he replied: “The bald guy”). It’s too hard to pick one B&B high spot in this show – so I’ll pick two: the first is Benedick listening behind a washing line as Claudio, Don Pedro and Leonato trick him into falling in love with Beatrice by making out she’s crazy for him, a scene quite wonderfully played by Dan Ireson, and the second is Rachel Handler’s delivery of the play’s most deadly line: Beatrice’s shocking, icy reply to Benedick’s enquiry as to how he can help in the aftermath of Hero’s disgrace. “Kill Claudio”, she says flatly – and Benedick first recoils in loyalty to his friend, then is more and more compelled by the rage and desire for justice of the woman he wants more every moment. We’ve known from their first stage meeting that things are pretty much smoking between them – the over-protested dislike, the energy of their verbal combat, the body language – but this is where it gets dark and real.

The blond bimbo with the suspicious mind and his unfortunate fiancée

The arrest of Don John.
Photo by Theatre Workshop Coulsdon, used with permission.

Other wonderful moments: the erotic masked ball; Don John’s truly sinister line: “I make all use of it – for I use it only” (speaking of his malice and discontent) and the use he then makes of a knife; the patrician humour between Leonato and Don Pedro as they listen to Dogberry’s garbled explanations of the villains’ arrest; Beatrice’s horror as the cousin she loves as a sister collapses following her public humiliation, and young Noah Payne’s performance as the Watchman, accompanied by some cool tricks with a rope. And there’s much more to rave about – the only thing stopping me is my word limit.

It’s fabulous to watch, too. Everyone looks great, the contrast of the dark-haired couple with the real stuff going on and the blond bimbo with the suspicious mind and his unfortunate fiancée is highly enjoyable, and the slapstick works wonderfully. Particularly nice touches involve Beatrice getting an ‘accidental’ glass of water in the face while listening in to other people’s conversations, and Hero spitting another glass all over Claudio’s sleeve when she hears something unexpected; if you want to take Claudio seriously as a character, his reaction here is a warning sign (too much dabbing and fussing and too many apologies from her necessitated) – but then, if we took Claudio seriously as a character we’d hate him. That bit of dumbshow between the two of them is a terrific example of the detail and care that’s been taken in Luke Argles’ genuinely fantastic production.

These actors brought it alive – and then some

I’ve reached that rather strange stage of parenting when there’s little point pretending my children don’t ‘get’ rude stuff, but I can’t yet talk to them like adults. This presents a quandary with Shakespearean comedy – they won’t necessarily understand the dirty bits, which are a lot of what makes it funny, so do you try to explain a line like “I will die in your lap” in whispers? Or let them find it incomprehensible and kind of miss the point, which is that people are people, the same things always make us laugh, and Shakespeare isn’t remote from them at all?

I think they should get it, because then they will understand that this is a play about life-energy and its renewal, culminating in marriage, bed, babies, survival – so hey, I try to explain, and the award for Croydon’s Most Embarrassing Parent probably goes to me as a result. But it’s all about getting it on – and putting it on outdoors* makes it even better. These actors brought it alive, and then some. It was a joyous night. You rock, Theatre Workshop Coulsdon!

* Take rugs and warm jackets. We did. It’s 100% worth it, and anyway, it might get hot again tomorrow. Who knows, and when something’s this good – who cares?

Much Ado About Nothing is being performed on Wednesday 29th July, Thursday 30th July, Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd August, then Tuesday 4th – Saturday 8th August. All performances are at 7:45pm. Tickets cost £9 (concessions £6) and there’s a barbecue. For tickets click here

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Bernadette Fallon

    Great review – we’re being spoiled by outdoor theatre around Croydon this summer – and isn’t it a wonderful thing.

  • Melanie King

    Thanks for this review – have booked 2 tickets for tonight on the basis of it :-)