Progress Theatre bring a warm and entertaining take on Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing romantic comedy back to the Abbey Ruins for their annual open air theatre production.
Here it is at last. This summer, after nearly ten years in the wilderness (well, Caversham Court Gardens, actually), Progress Theatre bring their annual Reading Open Air production back to our gloriously restored Abbey Ruins. Shakespeare in the Abbey Ruins was always a highlight of my summer, with the historic setting adding atmosphere and depth to any production. It’s delightful to see them back and have our impressive public space put to use for arts and culture.
This year, they present Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s funniest and best-loved romantic comedies. The ‘nothing’ of the title is, of course, love, and the play follows the romantic entanglements of a troupe of soldiers, returned from war to the Leonarto family home. Here, director Trevor Dale moves the action from the original 16th-century Italy to an English country estate where a family of RAF officers are back from the end of World War II.
That shift is a smart move to bring a story about gossip, love and honour to a relatable close knit community, where reputation is everything and where wild rumours spread fast. Although, aside from the costumes, and a couple of name tweaks (Don Pedro becomes Peter for example), little else changes.
The performance takes place in the Chapter House. That’s the one where you will have seen the ‘Summer is Icumen in’ plaque. It’s smaller and more intimate than some previous Progress productions in the grassy courtyard. With only a simple box stage and raised auditorium seating, it feels like a cocoon of a space.
Lighting comes only from a single bank of floodlights and there’s no real sound design either, except for the occasional strains of crackling radio announcements and war time love songs beckoning to us from an on-stage wireless. However, the thick stone walls of the Chapter House provide great acoustics, keeping the sound loud and close – unlike at previous summer productions at Caversham Court Gardens, where entire lines of dialogue could get swept away across the river by the wind.
This intimacy and simplicity of staging works well for Much Ado, one of Shakespeare’s more straightforward productions. There’s no ‘exit, pursued by a bear’ here, instead, it’s the far more relatable story of two couples looking for love. Our players spend their time chasing it, being captivated by it, struggling to understand it. As with all Shakespearean comedies there’s scheming, eavesdropping and cases of mistaken identity, and it makes for a chuckle-worthy and engaging production.
Matt Urwin is touching as the young and nervous lead Claudio. His love-at-first-sight relationship with Leonarto’s daughter Hero, (a sweet and lively Taylor Rupp), is believable and tender, making the eventual downfall and slander of Hero more heartbreaking.
Although they are technically a subplot, fierce friends Beatrice and Benedick are the real centre of Much Ado, with their verbal sparring, playfulness and flirtation. Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s most fully-formed, opinionated female characters: devoted, loyal, kind, funny and whip smart. Kate Shaw, who takes on the role here, does her justice. Her Beatrice is strong and clear, passionate and in high spirits. In parts, Shaw brings a chippy, clippy, Brief Encounter-feel to the role, which fits the ‘40s backdrop just as well as her Katherine Hepburn-inspired wardrobe.
As Benedick, Dan Clarke is a clear match for Shaw with strong timing and an engaging use of exaggerated facial expressions to show his disbelief at the idea of love and marriage. Together the pair have an easy, warming charm and both actors bring an excellent sense of rhythm to their long, speedy quarrels. There are laugh-out-loud moments of physical comedy and slapstick too, with Beatrice and Benedick hiding from each other in plain sight on an otherwise bare stage. They also do some of the best onstage comical eating and drinking I’ve seen for a long while.
There’s a strong line up of Progress talent elsewhere in the cast too. Mikhail Grozny often steals focus as the comic relief in Progress’ Shakespeare (he did as the gravedigger in last year’s Hamlet), and here is no exception. He is completely at ease as Dogberry, the gruff, incompetent, but blustering head of the night watch and gets us all laughing with wide-eyed tilts of the head. Ian Belcher also revels in glee in the role of the dastardly John, who comes up with the plot to question Hero’s honour.
Progress Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing is an engaging and heart-warming take on a Shakespearean classic from a quality cast. It’s a show with a serious story at its heart, but one full of light relief – a perfect choice to distract us from all the other stresses of this summer. And, of course, it’s delightful to see our local theatre back in Reading Abbey. Make sure you get a ticket and see this warm play while the sun is still with us.
Much Ado About Nothing is on Wednesday 11 – Saturday 21 July (except Sunday 15 July), 7.45pm, Reading Abbey, £22, book tickets.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.