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Much Ado About Nothing review at St Paul’s Church, London – ‘exuberant, thoughtful production’

Anne-Marie Piazza and Nick Howard-Brown in Much Ado About Nothing at St Paul's Church, London. Photo: Hannah Barton Anne-Marie Piazza and Nick Howard-Brown in Much Ado About Nothing at St Paul's Church, London. Photo: Hannah Barton
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It required some imagination on press night to transform the chill damp of a Covent Garden churchyard into sun-baked Sicily. All credit to the cast – mostly young and numbering only seven – for spreading a glow of good humour among an audience huddled in winter shoes and plastic ponchos.

Much Ado About Nothing revels in different kinds of fun: the sophisticated, flirtatious wit of Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal tussles, and the broad knockabout of the bumbling policemen, Dogberry and Verges. This must be the first time that an actor has doubled successfully as Beatrice and Verges. Anne-Marie Piazza is a spirited, passionate, cycling (the setting is 19th-century) Beatrice, and a comically eager-to-please Verges. She also has a soaring soprano voice that echoes around the church when, for the final scene of reconciliation, the action moves indoors. Her Benedick, Nick Howard-Brown (who also plays Borachio), has an equally light touch with the humour, but this strongly cast production embraces the near-tragic elements, too: the laughter at “Kill Claudio” is decidedly nervous.

Doubling Hero and Dogberry requires mercurial acting from Emma McDonald. She transforms herself from delicate, ladylike, abused Hero into a booming voiced mini-dictator, dispensing malapropisms along with muddled justice. Gender in the casting is pleasingly irrelevant: Jennifer Clement plays the maid Margaret, ill-natured Don John and an abbess.

The flowery oasis of St Paul’s gardens makes a delightful setting for Amy Draper’s exuberant, thoughtful production, and the three locations, with their summery sets, are well used, but moving the audience between them quite so often does tend to slow things down.

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Energy, warmth and fun counteract the outdoor chill in an exuberant promenade production of Shakespeare's nuanced comedy