Tag Archives: Twelfth Night

The Man-She of Inisherin – sorry, Illyria!


The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Sunday 2nd April 2023

When Viola washes up from a shipwreck, she believes her twin brother to have perished and so she dons male clothing and finds work running errands for the local duke.  Director John Robert Partridge gives his Illyria and Oirish setting, bejabbers, a world of greenery and pub furniture.  For the most part, it works very well, with the vocal cadences suiting the text.  Some cast members handle the accent and the verse better than others but on the whole this is a clear and accessible version of Shakespeare’s most bittersweet rom-com.

Partridge casts himself in the role of Sir Toby Belch, resplendent in an emerald green suit and ruddy face.  Belch’s drunken excesses never seem forced or false; it must have been great fun researching for the role.  Partridge also surrounds himself with a fine ensemble of character actors, among them Freya Cooper’s feisty and heartfelt Viola, Sarah Feltham’s brassy Maria, and Ciara Lane’s wildly passionate Olivia (or should that be O’Livia?).  While Olivia indulges in prolonged mourning for her late brother, her would-be suitor Orsino indulges in soppiness –  Joshua Chandos is in good form as the lovestruck duke, and shares a lovely scene and a portion of chips with the disguised Viola when their bonding goes beyond mateship.  Dominic Selvey is opportunistically bisexual as Viola’s brother Sebastian. Selvey makes the character likable and not merely selfish, and you get the idea that he would stay with Antonio (Wilson McDowell) if Olivia doesn’t hand herself to him on a plate.  Come to think of it, there’s a lot of repressed bisexuality going on in this play.  Perhaps old Will was going through a phase.

Lucas Albion’s Feste, presented here as a busker, is charming and funny with a twinkle in his eye, his guitar-playing adding emotional depth to comic scenes.  Edward Manning’s Malvolio is wonderfully pompous and beautifully well-spoken.  We enjoy seeing his comeuppance but we also feel for him, such is the power of Manning’s portrayal and the genius of Shakespeare’s writing.

Yes, it’s a fine cast indeed but for me, man of the match is Daniel Grooms, who treats us to a superbly comic characterisation of upper class twit Sir Andrew Aguecheek.  No detail escapes him, and there is splendid physical comedy to accompany the portrayal.  An absolute delight.  Special mention, too, of the versatile Sean MacGregor as Fabian the bartender and other roles, an object lesson in how to have great stage presence no matter the size of the part.

The comedy is well-handled: the raucous late-night drinking, the cowardly confrontation, and the sheer silliness of the box-tree scene where Toby et al spy on Malvolio in the garden is marvellously realised.  And the climactic reunion of the twins delivers the emotional kick in the feels I expect.  There are a few details I’d quibble with but on the whole this is a marvellous production, hilarious and touching in all the right places.

Great craic.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Cheers! Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (John-Robert Partridge and Daniel Grooms) Phoro: Andrew Maguire Photography

A ‘Night’ to Remember


Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th November, 2017


Director Christopher Luscombe sets his Illyria in the late Victorian era, with Orsino’s court designated as ‘the town’ and Olivia’s estate as ‘the country’.  Thus the action is divided along the same lines as The Importance of Being Earnest – the characters even travel between the two by train.  There is a distinctly Wildean feel to Duke Orsino’s court.  Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) surrounds himself with witty young men, among them Valentine (Tom Byrne) and a rather striking Curio (Luke Latchford) posing almost naked for a painting.  Later, we meet Antonio (an elegant and dignified Giles Taylor) who openly declares his love for Sebastian while sporting Oscar Wilde’s green carnation – he even gets arrested!

Washed up into this world of witty men is Viola, who is more than a match for them.  Disguising herself as a boy and becoming servant to Orsino, Viola, now Cesario, finds herself falling for the Duke and he for her – although he buys into the disguise.  There is a sliding scale to sexuality and Orsino seems skewed toward one end.

Dinita Gohil makes for a bright-eyed and plucky Viola – it is about her fate we care the most.  Kara Tointon’s elegant and haughty Olivia becomes more enjoyable as she begins to dote on Cesario.  Her protracted period of mourning for a dead brother is clearly to keep Orsino at bay, while Orsino woos by remote control, preferring the company of young men.

As Malvolio, Adrian Edmondson gets across the prudish servant’s pompous officiousness and also his hissing contempt for the others.  In his mad, yellow-stockinged scene, he’s more of a cheeky chappie from the music hall; I get the feeling there is more wildness beneath the surface than he lets out.  His best moments come at the end when Malvolio, a broken man, comes to realise how he has been played and by whom.

Vivien Parry is excellent as Maria, instigator of the practical joke against Malvolio, bringing a lot of fun and heart to proceedings, but John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch (who does more farting than belching) has little of the lovable rogue about him.  He’s a drunkard, a user and a bully – too much of a mean streak for me.  Similarly, Beruce Khan’s Feste is embittered with anger and cruelty, which could be argued to stem from his position, as entertainer to silly white people, but I find the vehemence of his revenge leaves a bitter aftertaste, after an otherwise enjoyable and engaging performance.

There are many high points.  The letter scene involves some hilarious comic business with the garden statuary; Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a posh, bewildered delight; Sarah Twomey’s Fabia is a lot of fun; and songs like ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Death’ are beautifully melancholic, even with added Indian beats and instrumentation.

Nigel Hess’s original compositions bring Victorian music hall flavours but at times the music is overpowering.  It’s a bit like when an Oscar winner speaks for too long and the orchestra strikes up to play them off.  Several scenes suffer from this intrusion.  Some of the humour seems heavy-handed: a pack of servants fleeing the mad Malvolio doesn’t quite work for me.

Overall, I like the style.  Simon Higlett’s design marries Victorian architecture (hothouses, railway stations) with an autumnal palette.  Mortality is ever-present in the piles of dead leaves.

While there is much to admire and enjoy about this lively production with its many fresh ideas, I’m afraid some of the cakes are a little stale and some of the ale is somewhat flat.

Twelfth Night production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_234119 (1)

To the letter: Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Comedy/Tragedy Tonight!


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th July, 2017


The Watermill Theatre’s tour of a Shakespeare double bill arrives in Wolverhampton and gets off to a stirring start with a contemporary setting for Romeo & Juliet.  Aimed at a YA audience, it appears, this is Verona Hollyoaks-style, where a chorus of hoodie-sporting youths narrate and provide some of the show’s most effective non-naturalistic sequences.  A young cast overall, they are headed by Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva as the star-cross’d lovers.  What really comes across is the youth of the characters, their exuberance, gaucheness and headlong surrender to violent emotions.  This makes the balcony scene awkwardly funny but nonetheless sincere in its outbursts and declarations of love.

Victoria Blunt makes a bold, tomboyish Benvolio while Offue Okegbe is an endearing Mercutio – although I think he could ditch the wetsuit and flippers and still be funny.  Peter Dukes is a beefy Tybalt and Rebecca Lee a sympathetic Friar Laurence but it is Lauryn Redding as the Nurse (and also as the Prince who uses a rubber ball as a gavel to punctuate his pronouncements) who shows us how it’s done.  Among a strong ensemble, she stands out in terms of conviction and delivery.  I also admire Capulet (Jamie Satterthwaite) and his cheesy dad speech.

Director Paul Hart interlaces scenes with up-to-date musical numbers performed live by the cast.  This is at its most effective as a soundtrack underscoring key moments, e.g. a Movement sequence at R and J’s wedding brings the first half to a close with a preview of what is to come.  The style is very much influenced by Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh – and this is in no way a bad thing, making the action accessible and the emotions plain.  On the whole, the cast handle the verse expertly – apart from the off moments when they’re rushing it.  A sophisticated and engaging production, brimming with youthful energy.

watermill romeo

Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva on the balcony

Back again the following evening for the bittersweet rom-com, Twelfth Night.  This Illyria has a 1920s vibes to it and the music is vibrant and jazzy – some of the songs used are anachronistic but this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  Effective use of Tears For Fears’ Mad World, for example, and again I am struck by the musical and vocal abilities of the cast.  Rebecca Lee is the cross-dressing Viola – this is a world in which genders are bent and no one bats an eye: Sir Toby Belch (Lauryn Redding being marvellous again) is such a figure, referred to as a ‘she’ but dressed like a man (with conduct to match) and the honorific ‘Sir’.  No wonder Viola is able to get away with it.  Jamie Satterthwaite is a suitably self-indulgent Orsino, while Aruhan Galieva’s regal Olivia soon shows us the love-struck young lady behind the veil.   Offue Okegbe’ s easy-going Feste and Mike Slader’s prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek add to the pervading comic mood; Victoria Blunt’s cunning Maria and Emma McDonald’s earnest Antonia keep the plot moving with conviction.  There is always a melancholic air to this play, as though people are trying to distract themselves with practical jokes, music, and the folly of love (and, of course, drink!).  Paul Hart’s direction keeps the party atmosphere going without neglecting the undercurrent – people are hurt by these ‘distractions’, none less than Peter Dukes’s show-stealing Malvolio who transforms from a stuffy butler type to a kind of ‘sweet transvestite’ in yellow stockings and feather boa, to a broken, humiliated man, bent on revenge.  It’s a delight of a show, like bitter chocolate, reminding us that Shakespeare can still push our buttons to make us laugh and to make us empathise with our fellow humans.  The downbeat happy ending is here enlivened by a jazzed-up rendition of Hey-ho, the Wind and the Rain.   In fact, Ned Rudkins-Stow’s arrangement of the play’s songs are all well done, from O, Mistress Mine to Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave.  Shakespeare wasn’t half bad as a lyricist either, it turns out!

A thoroughly enjoyable pairing – you should catch at least one if you can.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander-029

Rebecca Lee and Offue Okegbe (Photos: Scott Rylander)


Some achieve greatness


Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd November, 2015


There is much to admire and enjoy in Colin Judges’s modern-day production with a distinct Mediterranean vibe. The set denotes grandeur and climate: a sturdy gated backdrop of stone walls abuts onto a patio of decorative flagstones on which the drama will be played out. A band of musicians in casual beach-bar wear warms us up with some sweet and melodious music by Sheila Amman, which is both of the moment and has hints of Tudor tunes. The costumes (by Stewart Snape) are colourful and in keeping with the setting.  Adam Lovelock’s sound design is especially effective at depicting different locations and Pete Laver’s lighting sets both mood and time and day beautifully. There is an artistic integrity to the production that works very well, including why men in this day and age are walking around tooled up with swords!

Sadly, Jordan Chilvers’s does not convince as the lovesick Orsino, needing to highlight his mood swings a touch more. Similarly, Rachel Cooper’s thoughtful but rather passive Viola could do with a bit more swagger when in Cesario guise, in order to knock Olivia out of her proposed seven years of mourning and headlong into distraction and infatuation.

As soon as Sir Toby Belch (Crescent stalwart Les Stringer) comes on, the energy levels rocket and the show recovers from its languid start to become a highly enjoyable event. Stringer brings detail and nuance to Sir Toby, as well as delivering the broader aspects of this hedonistic old sot. As Sir Toby’s sidekick and drinking buddy, Paul Brotherton almost steals the show with his consistently hilarious characterisation. His Sir Andrew Aguecheek is camper than Christmas but is served up with a good deal of inner truth and tenderness. It’s a fabulous and endearing creation.

Elli Holden makes for a coolly calculating Olivia, who wears her status as lady of the house as easily as her veil. Sophie Gray is good fun as a cheekily calculating and spirited Maria, while Hugh Blackwood’s monumental Malvolio is an absolute hoot. Lugubrious and measured at first, his manic episodes later on are all the more of a contrast – and yet he manages to make us love him, well before the end when his abuse is brought to light. A joy.

I have a particular fondness for Feste the fool, here appealingly played by Mark Payne, lively and witty and warm, with a pleasant singing voice to boot. Director Colin Judge hits most of the high spots, wringing out the comedy of set pieces like the late-night boozed-up sing-song, and the letter scene. Most of the cast deliver Shakespeare’s blank verse and prose with clarity and understanding, bringing out not only the humour but the melancholy of this ancient rom-com.

If you’re in Birmingham next week, give the Christmas markets a swerve and treat yourself to a night out at the Crescent. This Twelfth Night is a bittersweet confection well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

twelfth night

Mark Payne as Feste

A Dark Night


The Attic, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th September 2014


Shakespeare’s bittersweet rom-com is given a fresh injection of darkness in this touring production by PurpleCoat. The setting is present day – judging by the pulsating dance music and the designs of the beach towels that form the backdrop. Illyria is party central but there are two flies in the ointment. The first is lovelorn Duke Orsino: self-indulgent and selfish, he is a man in love who considers no one else’s passions but his own. The second is the Lady Olivia whose prolonged mourning for her dead father and brother keeps her from the world. These two speak with Liverpool accents, in an interesting reversal of class (their servants are much posher!). In some cases, the accent brings out the naturalism of the script but in others it jars a little. There are moments when the accent brings a note of bathos. There is much to laugh at with this pair. I warmed to Daniel Carmichael’s Duke and Rhea Little’s Olivia, like a WAG, has some deliciously funny moments.

Caitlin Clough is a strong Viola, clever and sometimes vulnerable. Stewart McDonald’s masterly Malvolio is funny and oddly sympathetic; he suffers distress at the hands of practical jokers – it is during the Sir Topaz scene that the play turns dark: the practical joke has gone sour. Even instigator Toby Belch cannot stomach it. Sir Toby is played by director Karl Falconer; by the end he is a broken man. His excesses have got the better of him and he totters around with an Ozzy Osborne frailness. Lee Burnitt’s Feste is rather intense for a jester but his music brings out the melancholy aspects of the play. The main players are strongly supported by Thomas Whittaker (Fabian and Valentine) and Jack Spencer makes an impression as Curio and Viola’s misplaced brother Sebastian.

Strongest of this young cast are Sam Liu’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is part Kenneth Williams, part Charles Hawtrey and part Bertie Wooster, and Natasha Ryan as the scheming Maria. Between them, these two could perform a Carry On film.

There are dips in the energy and while most of the comic business works a treat, there is the odd moment of over-egging the pudding. In this small venue, the broader playing shows up weaknesses in the more naturalistic moments. Problems with the lighting mean often characters are standing in shadow – If they were in for a longer run than just this one performance, I would call these teething problems. I question the interpolation of a “Fuck this!” and Olivia telling Sir Andrew to piss off; they seem too out-of-keeping with the rest of the tone to be funny.

On the whole though, this is an invigorating romp with a touching denouement and a nasty aftertaste, and reminds me why I love the play so much.1TwelfthNight_ForWebsite

This Night’s the Night!


mac, Birmingham, Saturday 12th July, 2014


“If music be the food of love, play on,” Count Orsino utters the famous first line. The onstage band launches into Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug and suddenly Orsino’s white suit and black tie make sense. “That strain again,” he interrupts his rendition, “it has a dying fall.”

There, in a nutshell, you have the essence of this production. Pop music (and plenty of it) is blended with Shakespeare’s text. Sometimes the gear change jars but for the most part, the transitions are seamless – it’s almost as if Old Bill had wanted to write a modern jukebox musical all along.  Every song is a happy surprise, adding to the action rather than interrupting it. Nowhere else will you get Viola belting out Adele’s Rolling in the Deep and a petulant, strutting Malvolio with a humongous quiff giving us his best Morrissey.   I tremble to imagine the music clearance bill for this production.

Yes, Oddsocks is back. This is their 25th anniversary tour and I’m proud to say I’ve been a devotee for most of that period. Director Andy Barrow never seems to be short on ideas and his Twelfth Night ranks up there with my favourites.

Rebecca Little is a hoot as a diminutive Viola, running around with a stepladder, in her presumed dead brother’s Robert Palmer suit. Much is made of the height difference between her and her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian – the magnificent Dom Gee-Burch who also gives us a Feste the Clown as a kind of Russell Brand figure.

The mighty Andrew McGillan’s Sir Toby Belch is an ageing rocker in patched denim, a hair band around his Hair Band wig. It’s a revelation of a characterisation. The drunkenness and hedonism are presented in a way that is entirely relatable to everyone in the audience; this has been Barrow’s approach for a quarter of a century: making Shakespeare accessible and above all enjoyable to people of all ages and academic achievement. Barrow is some sort of theatrical alchemist, mixing very British silliness with Shakespeare’s speech patterns and poetry. The text always survives the Barrow treatment and plenty of Shakespeare’s original jokes go down very well.

Louisa Farrant is a beautiful, gawky Olivia – Miranda Hart could learn a lot from her delivery. As always, Barrow has put together a cast of consummate comedy performers, and there is such warmth and goodwill generated by this excellent ensemble, it’s no wonder people keep coming back to Oddsocks for a fun night out.

Barrow himself is the prissy, sneering Malvolio, giving a master class in verbal and physical humour. His cross-gartered scene is, literally, a revelation.

Joseph Maudsley steals the show in my opinion doubling as a suave Orsino and a prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Orsino’s barely repressed attraction to Viola in disguise as a man gives us the most hilarious running joke of the night – Little too, as Viola or as Maria a Cockney maid who would not be out of place drinking with Kat Slater in the Queen Vic, is another jewel in this production’s crown.

It’s a unique, fast and funny take on Shakespeare’s rather melancholic rom-com from a theatre company at the height of their game.

Arrive early if you can – at some venues there is an extra treat before the show begins: a set from Outsider (Felix Mackenzie-Barrow and Lucy Varney), an upcoming and talented musical duo performing their own material, that eases us in rather nicely before the silliness explodes onto the stage.


Andy Barrow. Heaven knows he's Malvolio now.

Andy Barrow. Heaven knows he’s Malvolio now.

Anarchy in Illyria


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 26th February, 2014

I don’t mind people ‘messing about’ with Shakespeare, being irreverent and what-have-you.  There’s a lot of fun to be had with this type of thing.  Witness the consistently hilarious output of Oddsocks, for example.   Here, Filter Theatre condense Shakespeare’s rom-com into 90 minutes, embellishing it with gags visual and audible and, for the most part, it’s very entertaining.

The bare stage has the air of a rehearsal space.  Actors and musicians in everyday clothes mill around until the show begins.  A man in white shirt and trainers and jeans makes faltering attempts to utter the play’s famous opening line – and we’re off.  It’s like a beat poetry session in Duke Orsino’s court.  Jonathan Broadbent doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an energetic, acrobatic characterisation, where switches from one role to the other are achieved entirely by a change of stance.

Sarah Belcher is Viola, borrowing a hat and coat from audience members to effect her disguise as a boy.  She gets Viola’s concealed passion across very well, but playing her own twin brother makes it difficult to pull off the siblings’ eventual reunion.  Liz Fitzgibbon is both deadpan and sensual as Olivia but her servant Malvolio (Fergus O’Donnell) is truly startling, stripping down to yellow socks and Rocky Horror golden trunks and strutting around like a Rolling Stones tribute. Natasha Broomfield is a fun-loving Maria (and a cocky Feste) and Geoffrey Lumb’s Toby Belch is the most immersed in his role, the only one in period costume and affecting to be drunk all the time.

Where it works best is when the group’s ideas complement the action.  The jazz music lends an improvised air to the proceedings. You feel anything could happen.  Unfortunately, it does. There are some deliciously funny moments when Shakespeare and Filter are working in tandem.  At other times, the play is overwhelmed and brought to a standstill, when Filter’s anarchic ideas, sometimes self-indulgent, go on (and on) for too long.  Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s late-night carousing is one example, culminating with half the audience joining them on-stage for a conga while the other half pass around boxes of pizza.  There then follows an inevitable lull as everyone troops back to their seats.  At moments like this, I just wanted them to get on with it.

My companion, unfamiliar with the play, found it difficult to follow the plot and I imagine he wasn’t the only one.  It’s as though the choice of material is irrelevant and the company are going to do what they like with it anyway.  With a bit of editing, and directors Oliver Dimsdale and Ferdy Roberts reining it in a little, Filter’s Twelfth Night could be consistently hilarious and satisfying.  Let Shakespeare have his head and dress him up in all the comic invention you can muster and you can’t go wrong.


The Love Boat

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd March, 2012

This season the RSC present three of Will’s plays linked under the theme of shipwreck. The other two are The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors – the latter has more in common with Twelfth Night. In both, twins are separated by maritime disaster leading to confusion, mistaken identity and high jinks aplenty.

This production begins not with the famous opening line (If music be the food of love, play on) but with Viola clambering onto the stage from a downstage water tank and asking, “What country, friend, is this?” This brief moment serves to “brand” the show as part of this trilogy and seems to me a tenuous way to compile a season.

When we meet Duke Orsino (Jonathan McGuinness ) he is not the lovesick, self-indulgent in his suffering, egoist. Rather he is a shouty, angry young man, who seems to equate the loudness of his voice with the depth of his professed love for the lady Olivia. I couldn’t take to him. And I couldn’t see what Viola sees in him. It is a discordant note in a production that gets many things right.

The set is a shipwreck. The lounge deck, with grand piano, chandelier, faded upholstery and a reception desk in the corner. Characters come and go dressed like holiday makers in the 1990s. Viola adopts a blue jacket with shoulder pads and turquoise trousers in order to disguise herself as manservant Cesario. She looks like Tintin dressed as Don Johnson off of Miami Vice.

Toby Belch (Nicholas Day) totters drunkenly across the uneven floorboards in Hawaiian shirt and loafers. He is a likable sot but upstaged at every turn by Bruce MacKinnon as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Think Jedward’s elder brother with his finger in a plug socket for his hairdo. Think Rik Mayall in his early days for a hint of the performance style. MacKinnon wrings pathos out of the role as well as showing us what a complete arse Sir Andrew is. At one moment, he drops from the edge of the stage and into the water in order to escape trouble. Several members of the audience received a drenching. The range of their reactions added to my enjoyment of the scene!

As Malvolio, Jonathan Slinger proves he is an accomplished comic performer. His puritanical steward sports a toupee and a gleaming name tag as his badge of office. It is a very tight characterisation and when the action requires more physicality to the comedy, Slinger keeps it credible but still very funny. His exit, up a staircase, while cross-gartered in yellow stockings and his arse hanging out of a thong got the biggest laugh of the night. His final appearance, abused and ridiculed, shows the depth of his feeling. He is not going to laugh it off, take the joke and make peace. He swears he’ll be revenged on the whole pack, and his look takes in the entire auditorium. Not everyone in this rom-com is going to wind up with a happy ending.

And that’s part of the genius of this piece. The whole play is riddled with melancholic moments, most notably within the songs. Feste (usually a jester but here a lounge musician – Kevin McMonagle – practically busking for change) performs several tunes with modern arrangements but the nature of Shakespeare’s lyrics foreshadows the preoccupations of the emos of today. The play is bitter-sweet. The production suggests shipwreck as a metaphor for the affect love has on us. Some have their hopes dashed; others are salvaged and restored to life.

I liked plucky Viola (Emily Taafe) and I felt Kirsty Bushell portrayed Olivia’s arc very well, from languishing in mourning her dead brother to being reawakened to the possibilities of love and life. Best of the crop though were Bruce MacKinnon and Cecilia Noble (as scheming maid Maria). There is much to enjoy in this production but you’re more likely to come out of the theatre with a wistful sigh than a ribcage aching from laughter.