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RAPSCALLION MAGAZINE: Theatre Review: much ado about a lot in Elizabeth Freestone’s refreshingly funny contemporary take on Shakespeare’s famous battle of wits between the sexes with Beatrice and Benedick’s enjoyable verbal sparring

The image used to promote the show

Much Ado About Nothing. Tobacco Factory, Bristol.

Soldiers, snogging and songs mark Much Ado About Nothing as a youthful and vibrant show at the Factory Theatre in Bristol. A dramatic wartime opening sees Don Jon stripped of his rank and Claudio decorated for bravery helping to explain the motives behind Don Jon’s plan to wreck the wedding of Claudio and Hero.

In Elizabeth Freestone’s blokish production of William Shakespeare’s comedy none of the humour or romance is lost. Set in the here and now in modern dress the play is noted for the speed and clarity of the narrative which can in the wrong hands confuse anyone who does not know the story.

Don Jon played by Georgia Frost brought the villain to life, not as the pantomime baddie but as a complex, confused and opportunist character. Louise Mai Newberry was excellent in several roles including a health and safety office, a job’s worth Dogberry and a strong singer.

For those familiar with the 1993 movie in which Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thomson starred as the sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice will have wondered how the sunlit lands of Sicily where the story is set could be staged. Jean Chan design opted for minimalism in part due to the play being staged in the round and to keep the stripped down tone of the production which concentrated on the characters and story. There was party bunting and a scattering of cushions, beer barrels and even a mic and amp but lighting from Nic Farman was more important in changing the mood of the scenes.

The 1993 film was set in Italy – Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) 

Dorothy Myer-Bennett with her pre-Raphaelite hair and abundance of confidence as Beatrice was brilliant in dominating her exchanges with Geoffrey Lumb as Benedick who gave his character an enjoyable bumbling feel mixed with exaggerated bravado creating the legendary exchanges which makes the play such a joy.

Zachary Powell as Don Pedro was good value as was Alex Wilson as Borachio and the Friar. Imran Momen had to balance the strangely split personality as genial flirt and enraged husband to be who falls for Don Jon’s plot. Only the archaic Tudor sexual codes of conducts can explain this aspect of the plot but together with Christopher Bianchi as Leonato (Hero’s dad) pulled it off with the help of mobile phone evidence. Bianchi and Alice Barclay as his wife Ursula made a believable couple. With their modern dress they looked like any couple in the organic section of Sainsbury’s or outside their Bedminster home cleaning the Ford Modeo.

In rehearsal – Bethan Mary-James

Gawky nerdy looking Hannah Bristow as Hero made the best of her role upping the awkwardness of her character once she’s singled out as a potential bride – a tricky one as Hero doesn’t get too many lines and can be a slightly insignificant character considering her pivotal place in the plot. Bethan Mary-James as Margaret brought so much to the production, strumming her Ukulele, singing in her soft and soulful voice and giving the drama a continuity as she drifted on and off stage in a variety of guises. Speaking of guises the masked ball scene is almost worth the ticket price alone with its disco beat and flashing lights and as with so much in the production choreography of movement kept the action rolling at high speed. It was at over two and a half hours much ado about a lot.

Harry Mottram

The play runs until Saturday, November 9, 2019 before transferring to Wiltons’ Music Hall in London from November 12, 2019.

For details and tickets visit https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com

The play is a Shakespeare in the Tobacco Factory production. Details at stf-theatre.org.uk

Box office on 0117 9020344.

For more reviews, news and views on theatre and much else visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE: PREVIEW Ancient folk tale of a beautiful daughter and a mysterious beast in a dark forest set for Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre

Beauty - or rather Belle - is played Sara Lessore in this production

Beauty – or rather Belle – is played by Sara Lessore in this production at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol

Although film versions may cloud the imaginations of audiences for the Tobacco Factory’s Christmas season production of Beauty and the Beast the original story is likely to have evolved several thousand years ago. One theory is that its original theme may be a collective folk memory of our encounters with Neanderthals as we populated Europe after the last Ice Age. How true that is up for debate but like most fairy stories its roots lie in the dark forests of an ancient world. Then wild animals were to be feared, hunted and revered – often being given human characteristics.

The universal story became crystallised when it was incorporated and retold in France in the 18th century in a collection of stories penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve after which several versions were published by various authors. Each time the story was embellished by the new writer it was in order to satisfy the growing expectations of potential readers with an eye on sales. Themes include animalistic fantasies associated with ancient folk stories, arranged marriages, sibling jealousy, the desire for wealth and luxury, of not judging people on their looks and of goodness eventually triumphing over evil. These remain at the core of the story but the back story to Beauty’s life as a child in a large family, whether or not she has a suitor before meeting the Beast, and also how the Beast is actually portrayed, vary throughout the numerous TV and film version.

A red rose is the one ingredient that has remained constant within the narrative – a gift of dramatists and designers of posters and programmes. Beauty lives with her impoverished family after their father’s business collapses. He meets the wealthy Beast and makes a promise that his daughter will marry him in order to restore the family fortunes. Beauty’s only wish is not for luxuries but for a red rose as they don’t grow where she lives. Following her visit to the Beast’s house she secretly wishes to return home despite the Beast’s hospitality and romantic overtures. She returns home with a magic mirror and ring. The mirror allows her to see the Beast is dying of heart ache so she returns to the Beast but discovers he is in fact a handsome prince who has been turned into a monster by a magic spell. OK – that’s some of the content of the story – there are several variations so it will be interesting to see this one. The publicity image shows the actor playing Beauty along with a forest and red rose – so those are featured – and it should be said the actor is of course beautiful.

Last year’s dark retelling of Cinderella by the theatre was criticised by this magazine for being aimed too much at adults and being too scary for small children so it will be interesting to see if this play reaches out to five years olds. Directed by Alex Byrne with musical direction by Elliot Davis the cast features Martin Bonger as the Beast and Sara Lessore as Beauty – or rather Belle – the name given to the protagonist in most versions. The Tobacco Factory Theatre has teamed up with New International Encounter and Cambridge Junction for this “mischievous and music-filled co-production.”

It runs from Thursday, 30 November 2017 to Sunday 14 January 2018.

Harry Mottram

Age: 5+

To book tickets or for more information visit https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/beauty-and-the-beast/