Superb finale brings CFT golden era to a close

REVIEW: Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, Chichester Festival Theatre, until October 29.

Steven Pacey as Leonato, Lisa Dillon as Beatrice & Rebecca Collingwood as Hero in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Chichester Festival Theatre
Steven Pacey as Leonato, Lisa Dillon as Beatrice & Rebecca Collingwood as Hero in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Chichester Festival Theatre

Outgoing CFT bosses Jonathan Church and Alan Finch deserve a final flourish with the final productions of their golden decade in charge – and they certainly get it with director Christopher Luscombe’s richly-entertaining double bill of Shakespeare.

The shows are the perfect riposte to those of us who have always secretly doubted whether Shakespeare’s comedies are quite as funny as everyone likes to think they are. Clearly, they can be hilarious – in the right hands, just as they are here.

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But they are also beautifully poignant – that poignancy hugely enhanced by the stroke of genius which brings two of them together here as part of one single vision, which places the more spirited, youthful, in-verse Love’s Labour’s Lost immediately pre-World War One, and the darker, much more mature Much Ado straight after the conflict, all delivered by the same company on a quite brilliant set by Simon Higlett, supported by music by Nigel Hess which is never less than spot on.

The contrasts are fascinating, and so too are the similarities. Both inhabit strange worlds where those closest to you can be rendered suddenly unrecognisable by the smallest of masks and where anyone, it seems, at any moment can be mistaken for almost anyone else. All you can do is go with the flow in this parallel universe where lovers seek out every obstacle to the realisation of their passions and when they can’t find one, they invent it. But then again, that’s all part of the playfulness which makes the tales seem simultaneously so inconsequential and yet such good fun.

Luscombe’s direction is sure at every turn, and Edward Bennett and Berowne as Benedick and Lisa Dillon as Rosaline and Beatrice, lead the cast magnificently, sparring lovers in both pieces with the sparks flying nicely. Bennett is absolutely delicious as a comic actor with his little looks and mannerisms; and Dillon, a newcomer to this revival of an earlier RSC success, does feisty to perfection.

The strength of the pairing – of both actors and plays – is that Love’s Labour’s Lost, in Luscombe’s new conception, sets up Much Ado so beautifully. See both on the same day, and the sense of continuation is one of the double production’s great pleasures, all the more so for the fact that it never seems contrived – even if the plots do.

The result is that the whole romps along merrily, the lines delivered with a naturalness which is key to comprehension but with a fluency which is at times breathtaking. Luscombe has delivered a master class in bringing out the laughs in Shakespeare –and also the eternal truths. It’s all hugely, hugely enjoyable.

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