By Charlie Culley
Lauren Brewer’s take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a joyful romcom that knows exactly when to deliver laughs and exactly when to tug on your heartstrings.
The production is driven by the relentless energy of the large yet cohesive ensemble. Every performer pulls their weight and shines individually in the ambitiously chaotic group scenes. Brewer, assisted by Ben Johanson, ensures that the complex web of relationships underscoring the plot is lucidly conveyed by the detailed performances of the ensemble. Credit must go to the outstanding performances of the four leads — Beatrice, Benedick, Claudio, and Hero — played by Lara Eastaugh, Olivia Spillane, Raphael Kris and Sean Farrell respectively. As Beatrice, Eastaugh is cool and assertive, commanding the stage. She shines in moments of understated comedy whilst also possessing the confidence to reach striking moments of tragedy. Spillane’s Benedick is truly effortless — their masterfully natural monologues are a highlight of the show.
It is Claudio and Hero that the audience ends up rooting for. Kris and Farrell, in their effervescent chemistry, transform what often comes across as a dysfunctional, shallow relationship on stage, into the heart-warming centre of the show. Farrell gives us a charmingly coy Hero, which Kris matches in his charisma and perfectly timed physical comedy. Brewer ensures that the audience are totally reeled in — we fall hook, line and sinker for the couples — and are completely invested by the end of the play. Commendation must also go to Evie Press’ irrepressibly energetic performance of Don Pedro — a fantastic foil to Alice Butler’s darkly comic Don John.
The queering of the play is seamless. Nothing feels tokenistic or forced in the slightest – each character inhabits their identity with total self-assurance. The play is unabashedly and joyfully celebratory of love in whatever form.
In fact, the catapulting of the play into 21st century Durham is a brilliant decision from Brewer, executed immaculately. The choice of Fabio’s Bar as a venue is truly inspired. Co-producers Georgia Jones and Amy Shelmerdine and set-designer Anna Pycock, transform Fab’s into a theatre and construct an immersive experience for the audience. We mingle with the cast, buying drinks at the bar with them before the play’s opening, adding to the feeling that we are being dragged along on their chaotic night out. The cast interact flawlessly with their set; it is always entirely clear which characters are bar staff, which revellers, and which the bouncers — whose comic scenes represent another well-observed detail by Brewer.
Inevitably, there are some teething issues that come with the use of this unconventional space – many of which beyond the production team’s control. The capacity for tech is slightly limited leaving the actors in shadow at points, whilst the ambient noise of the surrounding restaurant and bar was at times distracting.
These challenges are undoubtedly overcome by the cast and crew. The energy of the ensemble is implacable, not dropping for a second, culminating in the fantastic original song that closes the show. The closing impression is one of absolute joy — the audience can’t help but leave Fab’s beaming. I implore you to snap up the last remaining tickets for this sparkling and exuberant production while you still can.
Image credit: Durham University Classical Theatre