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London Theatre Reviews

Catherine Tate/ Ph: Johan Persson



Broadening the humor and bringing in big stars for the leads, Josie Rourke’s production serves up Shakespeare to the West End.

Of the two version of possibly Shakespeare's funniest play currently in London (the other is at Shakespeare’s Globe) it is inevitably this one, which pairs a Benedick played by former Doctor Who star and recent RSC Hamlet David Tennant with a Beatrice played by the almost as famous Catherine Tate, that generates the most ado. 
Well, how else do you get a commercial production of Shakespeare into the West End? The casting makes all the more sense, as Tate had a stint playing the combative Donna Noble opposite Tennant’s television cosmic trouble shooter. 
In Josie Rourke’s production, Tennant delivers his lines like the expert Shakespearean actor that he is – the language coming as naturally to him as the Scottish brogue through which it is filtered. Tate, meanwhile, speaks at a pace that suggests director Rourke advised her to take her debut Shakespearean role slow. And she does, though not fatally so, shoring up her lines with deadpan withering stares that muscle through Benedick’s mirrored Raybans. 
A Royal Navy base is the setting, the 1980s the period. But you need the programme notes to establish that this is in fact the British outpost of Gibraltar just after the Falklands War. And during the masked ball, I only later learned that the mask worn by Sarah Macrae’s bride Hero was Thatcher, not, as I thought at the time, Diana. Whoever it was, and notwithstanding the dashing white navy uniforms that admittedly give some strong clues, there is something amiss when you have to cobble together a production’s references after the show in order to understand them. 
Still, with the help of designer Robert Jones’ revolving stage of Roman columns, around and through which much of the action weaves, Rourke cleverly inserts an 80s aesthetic of bad hair, questionable wardrobe and enjoyably naff pop music. 
Cleverly, the plan by arch party pooper Don John (a dastardly Elliott Levey) to ruin Hero’s and Claudio’s nuptials takes place during the bride and bride groom's raucous stag and hen night parties. But were the 80s really a period when everyone smoked as incessantly as they did in the 60s? Perhaps in the navy they did, but the message seems hardly worth the cancer risk to the cast. 
In the main, though, this is an evening in which Rourke, who takes over from Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage next year, reveals her crowd-pleasing credentials. Though the humour is broad, it results in some very funny moments. Tennant’s Benedick somehow gets smothered in decorating paint as he learns that Beatrice is in love with him; less convincingly Tate’s Beatrice ends up hanging on a wire by her trousers when it is her turn to be fooled into love. 
And when the two law deputies – here knobbly-kneed and elderly – attempt to arrest Don John’s men, the felons’ contemptuous laughter is satisfyingly silenced at the appearance of the buffoon constable Dogberry (John Ramm) and the sound of his pump-action shotgun being cocked. 
This is not an evening of nuance and subtlety, and it hits the funny bone much more often than it plucks the heartstrings. But Tennant is the real Shakespearean deal. And seeing Shakespeare offered up to West End audiences as a good night out on the town can only be a good thing. Especially when the production is this good.