BWW Review: LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Theatre Royal, Haymarket

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The Royal Shakespeare Company have burst back into the West End with their double bill of Love's Labour's - both Lost and Won. This pairing really is a remarkable achievement. Set in the summer of 1914 and the winter of 1918, director Christopher Luscombe has combined the charm and elegance of an Edwardian country estate with a wit, silliness and sense of play that would surely have made Will proud.

Though the plays are not necessarily linked, Much Ado About Nothing's assumed subtitle, Love's Labour's Won, has meant the two have often been connected. There are similarities - Love's Labour's Lost tells of a group of young men who have sworn off most food, enough sleep and (most challengingly) the company of women. This last point proves particularly problematic when the Princess of France sets up camp outside their castle.

Much Ado tells of the famously terrible lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, who seem equally determined not to adore each other, despite their obvious chemistry. In both, then, love is anything but smooth and wooing becomes a diverting game, as the Princess's party mercilessly teases the King's party, and Beatrice and Benedick are gently tricked into revealing their affections. Wit seems the prize beyond all.

Yet even within this world of tricks and gentle mockery, it is the silliness of especially Love's Labour's Lost (*****) that makes it so appealing. The opening scene, in which the young men earnestly discuss their academic plans, is hysterically funny - not least for Edward Bennett's initially silent objections.

Luscombe's direction is beautifully detailed throughout. Conceptually, the two plays have been used to bookend the Great War, and though this means the first of the double bill ends with a slightly cloying vision of the young men leaving for military action, the horrors of war add realism to Much Ado's less pleasant characters. The Christmas jollity of newfound peace is also particularly poignant in this setting.

Luscombe's direction of Much Ado About Nothing (****) is only slightly less successful. In place of the constantly heightened reactions and stylised movements comes a sniping repartee, with rare interludes of shocking emotion. There are also some wonderfully slapstick scenes, notably involving Nick Haverson and a teapot; such invention seems only to add to, rather than distract from, Shakespeare's text. However, this comedic style seemed somewhat incongruous with the lovers' habitual exchanges, especially during an extended sequence by Benedick - stylistically rather confused.

All in all, though, these are outstanding productions, beautifully conceptualised and performed. Edward Bennett nabs the best parts in each production and performs them with glorious energy and hilarious intent. Both Benedick and Berowne suit this era - both Bennett's characters seem like they might have been on the cricket team with Stephen Mangan. Lisa Dillon glistens as Beatrice, showing a glorious freedom of spirit. Brave, but never clumsy, she is utterly convincing and endearing in both roles. Rebecca Collingwood also shines as both Katharine and Hero, playing both with gentle intelligence and a sense of fun that might well be missed by a lesser production.

Other outstanding performances in Love's Labour's Lost come from John Hodgkinson, whose Don Armado is fantastically silly, and Peter McGovern. Their earnest and enthusiastic portrayals of these rather ridiculous characters are joyous - as are Bennett, Sam Alexander, William Belchambers and Tunki Kasim's Court of Navarre.

Though blessed with less written material, Leah Whitaker leads a sleek and self-assured French Court with poise and the unforced possession of true leadership. Jenny Arnold's choreography shines here, as the women's stylised movements make them appear poised and collected, distancing them from the giggling mass into which they could easily descend.

Nick Haverson gives two wonderful performances, though perhaps his turn as Constable Dogberry is most enjoyable. Desperately incompetent, his attempts to maintain a modicum of dignity earn him some of the plays' biggest laughs. Luscombe has a gift for finding the less obvious, yet utterly relatable, in a scene.

Nigel Hess, composer for both shows, adds drama with his underscoring, but his most notable work is his compositions, whose style supports Luscombe's concept and highlights the comedy of Shakespeare's lyrics. Peter McGovern sings beautifully and Harry Waller's turns at the piano situate the piece historically and add a touch of class.

Simon Higlett's designs are based on real manor house Charlecote Park - where, fantastically, Shakespeare was once caught poaching. Visually lovely, the sets swoop in and out with tremendous pace and their intricate details facilitate much of the plays' physical comedy.

It is rare to see one, let alone two, plays which marry together an old text with such fresh and lively ideas, without detracting from the work's integrity. These productions will be gushed about for many years to come.

Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at Theatre Royal, Haymarket until 18 March, 2017

Read our interview with Lisa Dillon

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan.



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From This Author Liz Cearns