Review: The Pantaloons, Much Ado About Nothing

Out of five

A Shakespearean panto? In August? Arts Editor Fran Lowe explains why, when it comes to The Pantaloons, this is only a good idea. 

My mum and I had had this little date in the diary for a while. A nice evening in August, we’d have some mother-daughter bonding time, and go to the theatre. Smallhythe Place, a National Trust property near my parents’ place in Kent was once home of Shakespearean actress Dame Ellen Terry, so it seemed a fitting setting for a production of Much Ado about Nothing.

This one was open-air, and I spent all day on this particularly rain-soaked Sunday gazing out the window wondering why this kind of thing always happens to me, and tying to decide if I’d still fit into the waterproof trousers I once took on Brownie camp. However, the skies cleared, and the sun shone down on The Pantaloons’ production of what is probably my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Those in the audience who were expecting a straight-laced version of the play were in for a bitter disappointment. But, this play being a comedy, surely it is part of its job to make the audience laugh, right? And laugh we did. The Pantaloons warmed up the audience at the beginning with a few songs, and kept us warm with laughter long after it went dark, the floodlights were lit, and the blankets were pulled around our shoulders.

I’ve always been a big fan of wacky interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, so am very forgiving when it comes to new ideas (A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a modern-day traveller camp, anyone? Been there, done that). But in perfect honesty, there are many ways in which The Pantaloons’ version of Much Ado about Nothing is probably remarkably similar to the way it was done when its author was still alive.

Those in the audience who were expecting a straight-laced version of the play were in for a bitter disappointment.

The audience participation, for instance. We were encouraged to heckle, to cheer, to boo, to sing along, just as audiences at the Globe would have been in the past. The very basic set, also, really just allows the audience to focus on the actors themselves, so the limelight really is on their talents. The small cast, with more cross-dressing than an average weeknight on Channel 4, again reminded me of things I was taught about what it was like ‘in Shakespeare’s day’.

And they really were a small cast- in fact, a total of four actors performed the entire play, swiftly, impressively, and, yes, hilariously changing from character to character between and during scenes with something so simple as a change of jacket. The four Pantaloons (Hannah Ellis, Neil Jennings, Chris Kenya, Maryann O’Brien) made a really great job out of not a lot of set, or costume. Their fantastic talent for comedy really shone through, and the audience easily forgot that the budget for this play was just about big enough to stretch to four high-vis jackets and a bubble maker (don’t ask).

Special credit, I feel, is deserved by Hannah Ellis, who primarily played Beatrice. From the moment she uttered the line “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me”, I knew she was a perfect Beatrice: feisty, strong-minded, and the kind of person you really wouldn’t want to start an argument with. There’s more to it than that, though. All too often, praise for comedic talent is only give to men in the theatre, with the common belief being that women just ‘aren’t funny’. Ellis, however, stole the show with her brilliance- not only was she a strong actress, with a commanding understanding of the nuances of Beatrice’s character, but she showed the men how it was done; her ‘character’ acting, of old man Antonio, for instance, was genuinely hilarious.

Much Ado about Nothing is a real comedy play- no one even dies in this one. And the Pantaloons really took advantage of the fact that this is a play in which it really does all end happily, by making it, well, a bit of a pantomime. I’ll never forget Neil Jennings’ (who played Benedict) rousing cry of “I shall hide me in the audience!” shortly before he dived between the picnic blankets and camping chairs before him on his hands and knees, and proceeded to drink some of the posh family in front of me’s expensive wine straight from the bottle. It made Shakespeare accessible- you don’t have to be a literature scholar to find that kind of thing funny.

The perfect Beatrice: feisty, strong-minded, and the kind of person you really wouldn’t want to start an argument with.

But, the thing is, Shakespeare is meant to be accessible. When the plays were first written, the ‘groundlings’ paid just one penny to come and stand and watch a play. It’s not meant to be daunting, and personally I’m very pleased that companies like The Pantaloons are working to undo the intimidating feeling that Shakespeare’s work acquired during the last century. It shouldn’t be scary; it should be for everyone.

The Pantaloons’ run of Much Ado about Nothing has now ended. For information on what they’re up to next, take a look at their website. Do yourself a favour, and make the effort to go. Personally, I’m particularly looking forward to their forthcoming production of Macbeth– I’m keen to see how their style adapts to a tragedy that is not only heartbreaking, but gory, bloodthirsty and psychological. 



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