There are times when Oxford excels and this magical evening was one of them.
Amid the magnificent setting of Oxford Castle Courtyard, one of Shakespeare's most accessible and life-affirming comedies was played out with flair and gusto by the consistently reliable Tomahawk Theatre Company.
Paul Nicholls' and Helen Taylor's direction was fast and furious, and quickly won over the eclectic audience of all ages. Holding, among others, young children and language school students in thrall for over two hours is a tribute to the directors' skill and deep dramatic understanding. They used every hook imaginable to keep us riveted to our outdoor seats.
The combination of assured and distinctive characterisation, outstanding musical direction – and guitar playing - from Francisco Vera, fancy footwork (Phoebe Knight) and slick slapstick ensured the play zipped along delightfully, raising laughs aplenty.
The wide pillars of generation were confidently established by the natural authority of Leonato (Richard Readshaw) and the mellifluous verse speaking of Don Pedro (Alex Nicholls) who delivered Shakespearean language with a perfect ear for contemporaneity.
While Beatrice (feisty Kate Collier) out-fizzed her cousin Hero (Kay Benson), Ivo Gruev's wonderfully winsome performance as Benedict made his handsome friend Claudio (Billy Morton) seem positively lumpen – but wasn't that the point? While Gruev could contort himself into any shape – like one of those balloon extravaganzas at the Cowley Road Carnival, Morton's denunciation of Hero was a block download, based on a logical conclusion drawn unwittingly from false evidence.
This astonishing pliancy had the audience roaring and rooting one moment at Gruev's slapstick, but in tears at his pity for poor, wronged Hero. Beatrice's compassion for her cousin was our way in past the prickly verbal pyrotechnics, while Margaret's (excellent Alexandra Ackland Snow) bewilderment and realisation that she had been used to discredit Hero added further subtlety to the dark shades.
Chris Walter's Dogberry was a joy. It almost - but not quite - exceeded his own in being called an ass. Dogberry's appearance with his side kick Verges (Mac Macfadden) to the Blues Brothers theme – especially with the roped k-naves in tow – was terrific.
Frazz Jarvis' sympathetic, humane Friar Francis was beautifully observed, and I liked Lucy Rayfield's spirited and humorous Ursula.
There was so much to enjoy in Ben Downing's set design: especially the use of trees, pot plants and the wind up gramophone. Rachel James' attractive art work made for great eavesdropping, while Dogberry's flirtatious sexiness might never have been revealed, if he hadn't bashfully raised a trouser leg.
Good to see too that the Ballroom Emporium – much admired from navigating the Plain roundabout – can furnish such elegant costumes, as sourced by Sue North.
The crowd of autograph hunters clustered around after the show said it all – catch it while you can.