Ah, the 80s, a decade much derided for its fashion, music and culture, but in director Josie Rourke’s hands, the perfect setting for Shakespeare’s tale of warring lovers.
Here is Gibraltar receiving a returning army – dressed swoon-inducingly in pristine white uniforms reminiscent of Richard Gere in An Officer And A Gentleman – back from war and ready to let their hair down in celebration. None more so than the regimental clown, David Tennant’s Benedick, whose arrival on stage sets the tone for a charismatically comic performance.
Yet the wind is taken out of his naval sails when he meets Catherine Tate’s bolshie Beatrice and the two engage in a malicious, embittered battle of wits. Theirs is a relationship bedded in anger and past misdemeanours; each insult is thrown with spite and aimed at the most painful spot.
While there is some seriousness at the heart of this comedy – Elliot Levey’s nasal Don John wreaking havoc like a slightly effete criminal mastermind you would expect to find in Lethal Weapon – Rourke’s production plays up the laughs and nostalgia. Both scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick overhear their friends talking of the other’s love turn the slapstick up to 11, while a symbolic Rubik’s cube, Casio keyboard and enough denim shorts to kit out a Wham convention make us 80s kids smile with delight.
Speaking of Wham, Michael Bruce’s music, which at times channels the spirit of the expansively coiffured duo, along with Lionel Ritchie and Bonnie Tyler, helps keep the feeling authentically 80s. It could only have been improved by adding Angry Anderson’s Suddenly to the wedding scene soundtrack and utilising puffy peach bridesmaid dresses.
The headline of this Much Ado is undoubtedly the casting of Doctor Who colleagues Tennant and Tate. The former Timelord proves his versatility once again, entertaining with his comic exuberance but always finding the reality deep in Benedick’s heart. His old assistant plays second fiddle once more, finding Beatrice’s anger – never more effectively than in the “That I were a man” speech – but rarely escaping her deep-set bitterness. Hers is a Beatrice I should not like to cross.
Possibly most surprising, though, are the assured performances of the strapping, leading-man-in-waiting Tom Bateman (Claudio) and lithe Sarah Macrae (Hero), he making his professional debut and she in her first West End outing. In fact, most of the cast’s younger members are making debuts, either professionally or in the West End. If it weren’t for the programme, you wouldn’t know.
Of course, this is not a Much Ado for traditionalists. There were certainly no strippers in the original, nor does Leonato have a wife. But audiences looking for an entertaining, laugh-out-loud production that is more 80s than Michael Jackson wearing rolled up blazer sleeves and aviators will have a whale of a time.