Review – Twelfth Night, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 9th November 2017

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night is one of those true, perennial crowd pleasers. It lends itself so well to modern reinvention, in new settings and new eras, and when you’ve got a central comedic role like Malvolio it’s a gift for a grumpy comic actor to breathe new life into it. It has songs – so you can make as much or as little of them as you want; it has a girl dressed as a boy making up to another girl on behalf of another boy (that’s bound to lead to trouble); it has drunks and idiots; it has separated twins who dress alike even though they haven’t seen each other for ages; it even has a Fool. If you were to cut up little pieces of all the Shakespeare plays throw them up in the air and then try to put all the most typical aspects back together into one play, you’d come up with Twelfth Night.

Orsino and CesarioChristopher Luscombe’s new production draws inspiration from the late Victorian era. Orsino’s Illyria is a Wildean, Swinburnean palace of decadence, where the Duke paints pictures of pretty young men with few clothes on and despite his protestations of love for his countess seems naturally more attracted to fellas. As a result, the whole Viola/Cesario setup takes on a greater significance. When Viola as Cesario is telling the entranced Duke about how she/he plans to return to Olivia to woo her even more, the Duke gets closer and closer to Cesario until he can’t resist but plant a big sloppy kiss on his/her lips, much to Cesario’s (and ours) dumbstruck surprise. Oh those Illyrians.

Sebastian and ViolaIn more Victorian design, the garden at Olivia’s country estate backs on to a beautifully realised minor extension to the Temperate House at Kew Gardens; and Feste, her jester, here is cast as her munshi ( Victoria and Abdul has a lot to answer for). That reassessment of the role of Feste absolutely makes sense in this setting. Shipwrecked foreigners Viola and Sebastian have clearly travelled from the East Indies or thereabout, with their stunning Maharajan robes looking strangely none the worse for their experience. Britain in the late 19th century was fascinated by all things oriental; it affected their costumes, their designs, their artefacts, even their drugs. Simon Higlett’s magnificent sets and costumes capture both the spirit of that fascination and the general sense of Victorian England, with the train station, garden statuary, Orsino’s studio and so on. I loved the use of the old-fashioned Polyphon player to provide Feste his backing tracks – a really nice touch.

MalvolioAs seems to be on trend at the moment, we opened with Viola’s arrival, off the shipwreck, for the first scene and then went to Orsino’s studio for his music be the food of love scene, rather than the other way around, as Shakespeare had it. Which among us is going to tell Shakespeare he got it wrong? This way round is much better; it somehow allows for a greater understanding of the characters and the opening scenario if we meet the earnest Viola first and then move on to the louche Orsino.

Malvolio crossgarteredAs in virtually every Shakespearean production nowadays there are a few tinkerings with the script or characterisations; and they are all successful and constructive – apart from just one aspect, in my humble opinion. There’s a lot of incidental music; and nine times out of ten it’s either too loud, or the actors’ amplification is too soft. Many speeches are drowned out by the music – Feste seemed to me to be the biggest casualty – and it’s simply too intrusive. On occasion it’s almost as though they’re trying to make it into a musical; that doesn’t work as there simply isn’t enough music to achieve that. Musically, it’s neither one thing nor the other and I was a little irritated at that imbalance. As usual, as Malvolio’s plight develops, we see him as more sinned against the sinning (yes, I know, different play), and Olivia’s final assessment that he has been most notoriously abus’d is quite right. However, this Twelfth Night is totally played for laughs, and the finale involves the whole cast singing all the songs again (really?) so any lingering sadness for Malvolio gets kicked into touch straight away. Maybe the production sacrifices a little of the play’s darker side so that it can end with one foot in the air going oi, oi, which isn’t necessarily for the best.

Sir TobyWhere this production really does come into its own is with some superb performances and truly entertaining characterisations. Let’s start with Malvolio – Adrian Edmondson in that role sounds like a dream come true and will rightly encourage plenty of bums on seats. He’s wonderfully dour as the strict puritan steward, dishing out death stares to reprobates, straightening out the angle of a stationary teapot with pernickety accuracy; and his transformation into a yellow stocking’d, cross garter’d, grinning ninny is very funny and not remotely over the top.

OliviaI absolutely loved Kara Tointon as Olivia. Her girlish relish at her constant meetings with Cesario is a sheer joy; her facial expressions really share that sense of physical enjoyment! John Hodgkinson puts his height and his vocal power into a strong performance as Sir Toby Belch, making what can be a somewhat tedious character genuinely funny; farting noisily and uncontrollably as he leaves the stage. Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another genuinely funny characterisation, collapsing through drink whenever it’s necessary, teetering across the stage in a discreet attempt to escape, mangling his words as he juggles dignity with debauchery. There’s a lovely scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Sarah Twomey’s gutsy scullery maid Fabia have to blend in with the broken statues in Olivia’s garden in order to hide from Malvolio. Simple physical comedy in many respects, but beautifully done.

MariaVivien Parry, last seen as the hilariously over-ambitious Mrs Walsingham in Half a Sixpence, brings a huge dollop of Welsh intrigue to the role of Maria; she couldn’t have been more dramatic (and indeed hilarious) in her account of how Malvolio has fallen for her trick – and it’s a really lovely reading of the part. Beruce Khan’s Feste is suitably mystic and exotic, combining the tradition Fool elements with a little touch of munshi magic. Dinita Gohil brings a natural dignity and nobility to the role of Viola; I really admired her clarity of diction with just that hint of Indian refinement that’s particularly pleasing to my ear. Esh Alladi’s Sebastian is a delightfully straightforward chap who can’t believe his luck with Olivia, and he exudes thorough decency whenever he’s on stage. Hats off to the casting department for uniting Mr Alladi and Ms Gohil in these two roles; with their similar heights and frames you really could believe they were twins. And there’s an excellent performance from Nicholas Bishop as Orsino, overflowing with artiness, always confusing the girl for the boy; a perfectly underplayed Victorian version of a Restoration fop.

Sir AndrewThe press night audience absolutely loved it, and it does fill the theatre with genuine contented vibes and a wonderful sense of good humour. I’d just like them to hold back on the musical intrusions a little; apart from that, what’s not to love?

P. S. Interesting to note from the programme how many of the cast of this show will also be appearing in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol, which opens next month; the two productions being played in repertoire until February. I’ll look forward to seeing that!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Relatively Speaking, Wyndham’s Theatre, 31st August 2013

Relatively Speaking Hello again gentle reader, it’s been a few weeks since we met. How are you doing? Oh that’s great, me too. Yes, been away, on our travels. I know, what are we like? Right, that’s out of the way. Saturday 31st August 2013 saw the demise of a number of decent shows so Mrs Chrisparkle and I headed off to London to catch a final chance to see a couple of them. Back in May I remember thinking it was a shame that we couldn’t see the new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at Milton Keynes because it was on during Eurovision week, the one week of the year when theatre has to take a back seat. Then it transferred to London for a short run and I rather forgot all about it. But there was a matinee shaped hole in our calendar for last Saturday so I bit the bullet and bought tickets. And I’m so glad I did.

Wyndham'sIn the hectic hassle-filled days of 2013, the countryside leafy garden breakfasts of 1967 seem a lifetime away; indeed many people don’t make it to their 46th birthday. Yet whilst there is a definite sense of naiveté to at least one of the characters, the repercussions of extra-marital how’s your father is a timeless theme, and I am sure that any audience member with a few guilty secrets of this genre will experience some squeaky bum moments during this play. This was Ayckbourn’s first really successful work, written at the request of Stephen Joseph (with whose name Ayckbourn’s work will always be inextricably linked), who wanted a play for Scarborough “which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies” – a quote from Ayckbourn’s introduction to the 1968 published edition. I’m sure it succeeded in that venture; and today it succeeds in packing out a Saturday matinee with nice middle class people who can rely on the writer’s and cast’s reputation for humour with a twist, but nothing too risqué.

Felicity KendalThe first scene takes place in Greg and Ginny’s London bedsit; the rest of the play on Philip and Sheila’s garden terrace in Lower Pendon, Bucks. The rather reassuringly Home Counties map that is used as a front curtain helpfully traces the railway route from London out towards Buckinghamshire that Greg and Ginny (separately) take in order to find this rural idyll; and I was delighted to see that the director Lindsay Posner had decided that Lower Pendon is the fictional name for Wendover, where I lived from the age of 5 till I got married. I can indeed endorse that if ever there were an idyllic rural Bucks village with a railway station, you couldn’t do better than choose Wendover.

Kara TointonBut I digress. This is a superb revival of Ayckbourn’s deliciously constructed and tightly written play; fifteen minutes of scene-setting then an hour and a half of full-on non-stop talking at cross purposes which results in a high comedy of misunderstandings; with three people shuffling their guilty secrets and an innocent fourth person crashing into them all. One character’s deceptions appear to be fully revealed; another person you realise has an additional secret that you don’t find out about until the end; and a third person you are always unsure of, and that uncertainty continues post-final curtain. There’s enough suggested intrigue to keep you guessing and surmising long after you’ve arrived home.

Jonathan CoyIt would be hard to imagine more perfect casting for this play. Sheila is played by Felicity Kendal; we’ve seen her in a few plays over the years but I don’t think she’s ever put in such a pitch perfect performance. She is totally convincing with her Home Counties niceness and she reminded me so strongly of the mothers of all my Bucks/Herts middle-class school friends, scattered throughout the Lower Pendon villages. Her comic timing is immaculate and her respect for and understanding of Ayckbourn’s words means they are delivered beautifully, wringing every last nuance out of them. Her character has a natural dizziness and you sense an additional faux-dizziness that she assumes when it suits her; but her genuine confusion at the situation in which she finds herself becomes yet a third layer of dizziness, and the whole combination is a complete winner. Her conversation with Greg about her not being Ginny’s mother still cracks me up.

Jonathan CoyJonathan Coy, lynch pin of many a West End hit show, gives a great performance, accurately portraying the bullying business bighead for whom it’s perfectly OK to deceive but completely unacceptable to be deceived. It’s one of the most hilarious and intelligent performances of a comic hypocrite you’re every likely to see. Kara Tointon is terrific as Ginny, the rather fab 60s girl with a mini-dress stashed full of secrets who thrashes out as a form of defence when things get too tricky, but whose heart is in the right place – maybe. And Max Bennett is superb as the wide-eyed honourable innocent boyfriend Greg who can’t see the blinking obvious when it’s staring him in the face, and whose well-intentioned but ill-advised blunderings cause havoc to all around him.

Max BennettWhen I was a student I wrote to Alan Ayckbourn for his opinion about theatre censorship, which was the subject of my (still-to-be-finished) thesis. He said that it “had very little effect so far as I was concerned, since by the time it was withdrawn in 1968 I was only, as it were, a fledgling dramatist, as yet too inhibited and too unadventurous to write anything that anyone could consider worth censoring”. It’s slightly ironic, therefore, that the opening scene of this production has Mr Bennett emerging from the bathroom naked, his frontal modesty protected only by two bunches of flowers and with no attempt to conceal his posterior. It was all done with great deftness, and it was indeed very funny; but it was another of those “let’s get someone to take their kit off even though there’s no real call for it in the script” moments. I can’t imagine the late Mr Richard Briers, the original Greg, flashing his buttocks to all and sundry; and indeed, I am sure the Lord Chamberlain would not have been amused.

This is but a minor quibble. It’s a terrific production of a play that still has the ability to make a packed audience laugh like drains. Superbly performed and put together, I’m really glad we finally managed to see it.