This double-bill by the Royal Shakespeare Company will delight everybody who prefers their Shakespeare play “as it was meant to be” starting with the lavish stage design by Simon Higlett reminiscent of the interior shots of Downton Abbey, a replica of the Elizabethan manor at Charlecote Park, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. The production also features beautiful Edwardian costumes, and a lovely musical score by Nigel Hess recalling the melodies of Ivor Novello, Gilbert and Sullivan and Noël Coward – a highly entertaining and fast-paced production performed by a company of 23.

With Love’s Labour’s Lost ending on a somewhat bitter note as death enters the scene and the men face one year of separation from their sweethearts, one might wonder if this is actually the end or if the story will be resumed. There seems to be a companion piece called Love’s Labour’s Won which has been lost. Christopher Luscombe has replaced the missing sequel with the later Much Ado About Nothing which bears quite a few similarities to the older play, most important of which another sparring couple as Berowne and Rosaline are transformed into the older and wiser Benedick and Beatrice. Set in the Edwardian age, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are united by the Great War with the former ending as the men are marching off to war and the latter beginning with the men returning from the battlefield, some more impacted by the horrors they have experienced than others. There is an affinity between the naivety in Edwardian society and the King of Navarre and his Lords who are willing to sign a nonsensical pledge before they are woken up by reality. In the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing some of them return home as broken men, Don John (Sam Alexander) is physically impaired which supposedly leads to his dangerous bitterness, Dogberry (Nick Haverson) is less visibly damaged but the effect is more ruinous.

However, it is the comedy which naturally rules both plays and, although they focus on puns and witticisms, Luscombe includes an abundance of slapstick, which some might find unnecessary although it is very entertaining indeed. Dogberry’s interrogation scene recalls the antics of the Marx Brothers and the famous gulling-scene is beautifully timed and choreographed having Benedick hide in a gigantic Christmas tree with disastrous but hilarious results. Even “The Pageant of the Nine Worthies” delivers as Luscombe wisely uses the form of a revue and the scenes between schoolmaster Holofernes (Stephen Pacey) and the curate Sir Nathaniel (John Arthur) have been refreshed with surprisingly funny results.

Apart from the stunning design and the beautiful music presented by a live orchestra, the production also features an excellent cast. Edward Bennett as Berowne/Benedick has perfect comic timing and delivers the wittiest lines with the necessary nonchalance. Lisa Dillon’s Rosaline/Beatrice is his match in every respect. John Hodgkinson’s Spanish traveller Don Armado indulges in his self-made melancholy whilst mispronouncing English words to great comic effect. Stephen Pacey is an excellent Leonato and a bookishly funny Holofernes. Tunji Kasim portrays a rather sweet and boyish Dumaine who still hugs his teddy bear. He even manages to make Claudio charming and innocent enough to warrant Hero’s quick forgiveness.

A delightful evening out.

Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Love’s Labour’s Lost & Much Ado About Nothing are playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 18 March, 2017