Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare
Time & Again
Victoria Baths, Manchester

Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing

Manchester, it has been said, has everything but a beach so Time & Again’s version of Much Ado About Nothing, set in a 1950s British seaside holiday resort, moves indoors to Victoria Baths, a listed Edwardian swimming pool and Turkish Baths complex.

With the addition of deckchairs and postcards, the seen-better-days building makes a convincing seafront promenade. The audience is seated in the empty baths and, as the floor slopes from shallow to deep, the sightlines are excellent. The lighting is natural allowing the show to end in melancholy twilight. However, there is an element of ‘swings and roundabouts’ as the tiled walls make the acoustics dodgy.

The 1950s seaside setting is inspired. The war veterans are returning sailors who enter dancing a sprightly hornpipe. The celebratory ball at the Messina Holiday Camp has an ‘under the sea’ theme with the characters in squid masks. Excellent use is made of music from the period; "Sigh No More" is sung doo-wop style while a funeral takes place against an a capella version of "Unchained Melody" and a seduction is made with Peggy Lee’s "Fever" playing in the background.

However, having developed a convincing 1950s setting, joint directors Laura Crow and Jon Turner immediately require a suspension of disbelief by making the central relationship between two women. Fine in principle but the concept sits uneasy with the text. Many of Benedick’s speeches are so misogynistic, they are unlikely to be spoken by a woman attracted to her own sex and the character has a masculine phobia about commitment. If Beatrice is known to be out of the closet, it seems unlikely she would attract a marriage proposal from Don Pedro and or that she would have shared a bed with her female cousin for a year.

To make the concept work, the co-directors extend the conflict between the characters from old lovers putting aside past injuries to acknowledge their attraction to embrace also coming to terms with one’s true sexuality. Megan Relph’s Beatrice is completely at ease with her sexuality and her femininity. Laura Crow’s Benedick, on the other hand, is ambivalent about her femininity, confident in butch mechanics overalls but distinctly awkward and vulnerable in a dress.

Gender-blind casting runs through the production. Jessica Ayres is a sophisticated Cruella De Vil style villainess with Leah Taylor’s teddy boy in brothel creepers as a catspaw. Dogberry is unusual in being a comic Shakespearian character who is actually funny, and Tim Cooper plays the role with the right degree of baffled pomposity backed by a suitably squabbling group of assistants.

The joint directors make full use of the features of the venue to create a lively and engaging promenade production. The action takes place at all levels with the cast popping up in the upstairs viewing area or on the same level as the audience.

Tackling Shakespeare is an ambitious project for a fringe company but Time & Again rise to the challenge with style with their thoughtful and warm-hearted production of Much Ado About Nothing.

Time & Again return to the GM Fringe with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (8 July 2022) and Earwig (18 and 19 July 2022).

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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