I visited London’s Old Vic recently to watch its overly intellectual presentation of Lear. Like a pretentious, post-modern meal, there is much to wonder at in this show, but it left me cold and hungry for something more filling. Impressive looking food doesn’t always taste that great. So it’s great to be back in Manchester and in safe hands seeing this Shakespearian double bill by the RSC and the Chichester Festival. 

One doesn’t need to see both performances by any means. Indeed, I take different theatre buddies to both and neither feel they are missing anything. Nevertheless, there is reason behind this pairing of comedies. In the programme, academic Michael Dobson explains that there is much to match Much Ado with Love’s Labour’s and he suggests that the former may be the missing Love’s Labour’s Won which Shakespeare may have written to compliment Love’s Labour’s Lost. 

lisa-dillon-edward-bennett-in-rsc-cft%27s-much-ado-about-nothing-photo-manuel-harlan_press-120Director Christopher Luscombe, along with designer Simon Higlett, have created many parallels, not least the cosy and warm atmosphere in both productions, much like a satiating Christmas dinner with all ones friends and family.

And so to Love’s Labour’s Lost. It’s a pretty, witty affair set in Edwardian England’s green and pleasant lands, replete with fancy frocks and a fabulous score by composer Nigel Hess. The King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and his three friends – Berowne (Edward Bennett), Dumaine (Tunji Kasim) and Longaville (William Belchambers) – decide on a life of study and self-improvement for three years. This means all thoughts of women are out of the question. There is some scepticism and, to help them keep their oath, the King demands that all women must remain at least a mile from the court. But with the arrival of the Princess of France (Leah Whitaker) and her three companions, that plan soon goes to pot. Needless to say, after much deception and hilarity, all are united in love (with a tiny plot twist at the end). 

Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won) continues in this cosy, Christmassy feel with time having shifted to the post-First World War era. The same cast and company as Love’s Labour’s deliver another high-gloss, Downton Abbey-esque, glamorous shindig. The performances are exemplary and the live music is a lovely touch.

All told, there is much to praise in these slick and unfussy shows, and the audiences on a Saturday in Manchester are appreciative. Nick Haverson is fabulous in both productions but particularly splendid in Much Ado as Dogberry. 

As much as both shows are of the highest standard, and there isn’t much to criticise, there is part of me wanting a little bit more of that Old Vic edge and less cosy familiarity. Just a peppering of the odd surprise, the odd challenge, and the shows at Manchester’s Opera House would have been totally delicious.

By Lucia Cox

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Love’s Labour’s Lost & Much Ado About Nothing are at Manchester Opera House until December 3, 2016 before transferring to London Haymarket

To read Northern Soul’s interview with Christopher Luscombe, click here