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Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare
Derby LIVE
Guildhall Theatre, Derby
(2009)

Produced theatre is back in Derby - and how! While Derby Playhouse is still dark and its future is as dubious as the nation's economy, Arts Council England is backing a Derby city council programme, Derby LIVE, whose vision is to present home-grown, professional theatre made in Derby.

Although Derby LIVE received a setback when Playhouse creditors turned down a bid by the council to take over running the city's main theatre, it merely switched its first solely produced in-house offering Much Ado About Nothing to the old-fashioned yet quaint, 242-seat Guildhall. It's a move which makes a more intimate setting, allowing you to feel an integral part of the action.

Derby LIVE's artistic producer Pete Meakin is at the helm for Much Ado About Nothing, setting it in the swinging '60s when Beatlemania and miniskirts were at their height.

It's a bold move and for the most part it works because the concept is subservient to the acting and the words. The throwback to the era of free love is especially relevant when Hero is falsely accused of sleeping with a man other than her fiancé on the eve of their wedding.

Meakin has brought together quality actors and some of the best young talent from the local area. They all work well together to bring vitality and energy to Much Ado.

The evening doesn't get off to a good start: black-and-white film of '60s events and locations including Top of the Pops and Carnaby Street is projected onto three screens at the front of the stage but it's out of focus; it wasn't clear whether that was deliberate but the accompanying sound of the Beatles' Help! could hardly have been more appropriate.

However, as soon as the play starts in earnest the quality shines through.

Two Derbyshire actors who've been making a name for themselves return to the city in the lead roles.

Steven Blakeley, best-known as PC Geoff Younger in the TV series Heartbeat, may seem an unlikely choice to play Benedick. But his geeky look and confident manner mean he can extract every laugh intended by Shakespeare and probably a few more as well.

The masked ball scene is done in fancy dress and Blakeley is ridiculously striking dressed as Batman. But he's equally at home in the more serious parts. Good too to hear his Derbyshire accent hasn't been eradicated altogether.

Lizzie Winkler, who's been working at the National Theatre, is a perfect match for him as Beatrice, showing vulnerability as well as feistiness when she battles Benedick for supremacy.

George Telfer gives a sterling performance as Leonato, adding gravitas as well as moments of comedy when Leonato is slow to join in the scheme to persuade the hidden Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him.

Claude Close takes a double role, providing just the right amount of solemnity as Friar Francis and adding a few laughs as Dogberry. But some of the opportunities for humour are missed when Dogberry and the two other constables are on stage.

Meakin directs imaginatively and with verve. The previously mentioned masked ball is a good example. How on earth, I wondered, could Don Pedro take Claudio's place to woo Hero when the two actors were nothing like each other? Don Pedro emerges covered in bandages and dressed as the Invisible Man! Brilliant.

This version of Much Ado About Nothing won't be to everyone's taste. Purists will no doubt say they can't recall Shakespeare's writing about the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits and Old Spice.

There are a couple of weak links in the cast while some of the costumes are not what I remember from the '60s. And I can't understand why Ron Frost as Leonato's brother Antonio is in a wheelchair looking glum and never says a word all night.

Yet this is a cracking production. The only pity is that the capacity of the Guildhall means a small number of people will be able to see it.

On this showing there's much ado about theatre in Derby. And with a few more productions like this one, the only tears theatregoers will be shedding for the Playhouse will be because it's a bigger venue.

"Much Ado About Nothing" continues until February 21st

Reviewer: Steve Orme