Summer Shakespeare in Oxford can be an expedition, and Thistledown Theatre’s fabulous garden venue could easily be missed were it not for a pair of effusive ushers shepherding the audience into a nondescript alleyway beside a carpark off New Inn Hall Street. Within, lights in the tree, antique chairs and a gently warbling gramophone set evoke Edwardian times; the scent of suffrage and social change is in the air, mingling with jasmine and birdsong, a twilight island of peace deep in the city centre.
Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, however, is also one of his noisiest, and Sarah Pyper (Beatrice reimagined as a no-nonsense botanist) and Tom Perry (Benedick, with a dread piratical swagger) are soon arguing up a mighty storm while the two visiting princes eye up their host’s beautiful daughter and foment mischief. Don Pedro has a queasily amusing panderish creepiness, courtesy of Jari Fowkes; while Joe O’Connor’s villainous Don John deftly balances seductive evil and emotional awkwardness. The henchmen are handsome and hilarious; Borachio (Henry Cockburn) is particularly fine as a boozy, besotted Bullingdon bully-boy. But the women carry the crown. Margaret (Eloise Sheffield) snips and snaps through the double entendres; Kate Astley O’Connor and Frances Murray (Hero and Ursula) are fun and feisty, giving effervescently bright performances even at the darkest moments of the play. Particular mention must go to the guardians of the brides; David Guthrie (Leonato) shows sharp timing and a fine range of rambles and rants; while Liz Hutchinson as his sister Antonia is eloquent in her impatient silences, and fast and fierce to defend virtue and modesty with her angry umbrella. Sewing the show together, Helen Coathup-Collier delivers messages, drags the audience into the action, wrangles Dogberry and ties the villains up in elaborate knots. Adventurous and enjoyable, this show snaps and pops.