Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Beatrice is the centrifugal force in Elizabeth Freestone’s summery production. Her merry war with Geoffrey Lumb’s Benedick is addictive, with laughs tumbling hard and fast as the rest of the cast feed off their high-octane insults. But when the sparring partners are off-stage, the show starts to feel unmoored.
Freestone’s production is best when it’s drunk. Roaring with raucous energy the night before the wedding, the ensemble appear in superhero costumes; Ursula’s Batman dancing with Leonato’s Robin and Claudio’s Captain America gazing after Hero’s Wonder Woman. Equally jolly is Jean Chan’s set, adorned with bunting and hanging baskets that give strong Bake Off vibes, as the soldier’s return from war – which war, or when, is vague – is marked with a garden party, complete with ukulele-backed nonny-nonnys.
After Claudio’s public shaming of Hero in church, a hangover thumps and the second half slumps. Freestone allows the tragedy in the centre of Shakespeare’s comedy to consume everything around it, but the production isn’t up to managing those depths.
Imran Momen excels as Claudio tripping over his own adoration for Hannah Bristow’s demure Hero, but his jealous rage is less convincing. Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate his genuine repentance, the mourning scenes are played with utter sincerity, but the mood becomes dull rather than dark. It’s not helped by the lack of justification for Don Jon’s (Georgia Frost) growling bitterness, her scenes feeling extracted from a different, more serious show.
Despite efforts to lighten the mood with the painfully broad night watch, the production forgets how to have fun with the text. The rest of the show plays its course, baggy round the edges, as we wait for Benedick and Beatrice to come back on and whip us into line.
• At The Tobacco Factory, Bristol, until 9 November.