The John Thaw Theatre in Manchester University’s quadrangle is a hidden gem. Earlier this week, Black Box Theatre Company performed at the theatre with their innovative adaptation of Othello, set in the First World War.

This is a brave, pared down production of Shakespeare’s classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and tragedy. It seemed fitting that it took place in such a studio space with the minimal of props allowing the focus to be on the power of the actors’ performances. And boy were they were powerful.

Explaining the decision to set the piece in the First World War, directors Matthew Bowden and Ian Moore said: “In setting the piece, we toyed with a number of time periods but eventually settled on some time around the Great War. The social relevance was still very appropriate at this time and we were content that the messages in the text would sit nicely in this historical period.”

They said that the decision was cemented when they came across the remarkable story of Walter Tull, who despite military regulations forbidding any person of colour from becoming an officer, received his commission in May 1917 from the British army and became the first black combat officer.

Othello, Iago Shawn John, who trained at the Community, Everyman and Playhouse theatres in Liverpool, plays Othello in this remarkable production. His strong voice carried well in the small studio space and focused the audiences’ attention on his anguish. Equally brilliant was Ben Jewell as Iago, with his asides to the audience which contained much seething rage. He was a truly despicable character played with aplomb by Jewell.

Sweet Desdemona was played by Lucy Peacock, a recent graduate from Hull University’s acclaimed drama course, who was convincing and cast well. She also played Bianca, a courtesan and Cassio’s mistress, slightly less convincingly with her bizarre cod Oirish accent that didn’t quite work. I could see why she did it to distinguish between the two characters, though.

Classically trained Sam Gannon shone as Cassio and Megan Rogers was equally well played as Iago’s wife Emilia, with a second role as a first officer. The performances were all mesmerising and strong with the stark stage with its white hospital-like screens on wheels being an effective backdrop.

Black Box Theatre was formed in 1994 by a loose association of theatrical members. It aims to provide diverse, imaginative and accessible creative services and it more than delivers, as Othello proved. I thought the piece worked well and was suitable for all ages. My teenage daughter also thoroughly enjoyed it and was entranced by the production.

I liked the First World War setting, but this is not surprising as I’m a fan of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (and the best-selling Toby’s Room) and they were all set during this period.

The running time was two hours and 10 minutes. It simply flew by – which is always the hallmark of a great piece of theatre that captivates.

The John Thaw Theatre is worth a visit, although this production has now moved on to other theatres.

Review by Helen Carter

Photographs: copyright Sam Gannon

What: Othello

Where: The John Thaw Theatre, University of Manchester.

When: 25 and 26 March, 2013

More info: You can catch the play at the Lantern Theatre, Liverpool in April and at the Guide Bridge Theatre in Manchester, also in April