Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night


National Theatre Live

I’m never sure about Twelfth Night. Yes, it’s a perfectly constructed play, with a rich cast of characters and some of Shakespeare’s most profound and memorable lines. But I’m always pulled up short by the identity swap stuff, because it’s so silly. And, dare I say it, over-used in the bard’s comedies. Yes, I know he’s a genius. But come on. It defies credulity.

Still, major plot quibbles aside, this latest offering from the NT Live’s lockdown programme is nothing short of glorious. Director Simon Godwin really revels in the play’s theme of gender fluidity, and it makes perfect sense in this context to have a female Malvolia (the marvellous Tamsin Greig), Feste (Doon Mackichan) and Fabia (Imogen Doel).

For those who need a memory jog or who are new to the play, this is the story of twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), washed up on the shores of Illyria following a shipwreck. Each believes the other dead, and sets out alone to seek shelter.

To Viola, disguising herself as a boy seems the safest bet, so she changes her clothes and calls herself Cesario. So-disguised, she finds work as a messenger for Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris), and is soon engaged in the peculiar business of attempting to woo the Countess Olivia (Phoebe Fox) for him. Unfortunately, Olivia falls for Cesario instead – and, to complicate matters further, Viola herself is smitten with the Duke. Add Olivia’s unruly uncle Toby (Tim McMullen) and his drunken entourage into the mix, and it’s easy enough to see why the prissy, order-loving Malvolia becomes so peevish and out of sorts.

The standout here is clearly Greig’s Malvolia; this is a star turn. Her obsessive, precise nature is beautifully detailed, and the frenzied abandon that follows when she falls for the revellers’ trick – instructing her to dress in yellow stockings to win Olivia’s favour – allows us a glimpse beneath Malvolia’s repressed exterior, as her secret desires are cruelly exposed. Her abject humiliation is genuinely heartbreaking.

But there’s plenty to admire besides Greig: McMullen’s interpretation of Toby (all louche and dissipated, like an ageing rock star) is original and works well with the script, while Daniel Rigby’s man-bunned Andrew Aguecheek makes a perfect comic foil.

The set, by Soutra Gilmour, is inspired: dominated by a huge rotating staircase, that turns to reveal a vast range of locations, all cleverly depicted with a few deft strokes.

This is a lovely, light production, with both exquisite foolery and emotional depth. I reckon I’ll even let the false identity stuff go. Against the odds, they make it work.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Shakespeare In Love



We’re seeing more and more screenplays being turned into stage adaptations these days, but Shakespeare In Love has a stronger claim than most to be afforded such treatment. Originally penned by Marc Norman and theatrical legend Tom Stoppard, it won seven Oscars in 1998 (one of them for Judy Dench, who was onscreen for all of six minutes). It also made the careers of Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. This adaptation by Lee Hall was first produced in the West End and has a rumbustious musical score by Paddy Cuneen thrown in for good measure.

Set in the year 1564, we first encounter Will Shakespeare (Pierro Nel-Mee) at the Rose Theatre. He’s mostly a jobbing actor, only recently embarked on his career as a playwright and struggling to create his latest commission – a comedy escapade entailed Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. It doesn’t help that his friend, Kit Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley), is currently enjoying stellar success as a writer, seemingly able to pluck words from the air with a minimum of effort. He often finds himself acting as Will’s muse.

Meanwhile, Viola de Lesseps (Imogen Daines), a noblewoman destined for an arranged marriage with the contemptible Lord Wessex (Bill Ward), dreams of a career on the stage at a time when women never get to tread the boards and where their roles are generally played by willowy young men in drag. When she hears that open auditions are being held for the new Shakespeare play, she disguises herself as a young chap and goes along to give it her best shot. As it happens, Viola is a huge fan of Will’s work and he, in turn, is so impressed by the way she reads his lines, he impulsively casts her as his Romeo. As their working relationship develops and he begins to suspect that this young actor is not exactly what ‘he’ appears to be, the play becomes less the comic romp that Will’s patrons have envisaged and more the romantic tragedy that audiences have come to know. That said, Shakespeare in Love is full of delicious humour with plenty of knowing nods and winks to many of Shakespeare’s other works, especially Twelfth Night.

A sizeable ensemble cast work their doublets and hoses off to keep the action bubbling away while an ingenious revolving stage provides a whole variety of locations, most effectively when it contrives to offer both a backstage and a front-of-house look at the same scenes. Cuneen’s music regularly supplies a series of jaunty, hand-clapping interludes and everything scampers along at such a sprightly pace there’s never time to pause and reflect on how unlikely the story is – but then, isn’t that the very essence of Shakespeare in the first place?

This is a delicious treat for Shakespeare fans and lovers of comedy alike, an ingenious and jocund adaptation that provides a most satisfying night at the theatre.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney


Twelfth Night



Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s the start of a new season and the Lyceum launches with this groovy co-production with Bristol Old Vic. Twelfth Night, written late in Shakespeare’s career, is surely one of his finest comedies, featuring as it does some very memorable (and genuinely amusing) characters. But of course, there’s no point in doing Shakesy-P (as he’s indelibly known around B & B Towers after listening to the Six soundtrack) if you’ve nothing new to add to the formula.

The conceit here is that we’re at a debauched bacchanalian party in a run down country house. It’s somewhere in the late sixties or early seventies and the guests, having been roistering and jamming for several days, are still reluctant to call an end to the proceedings. One of them happens to be reading a copy of the play, so it is decided they’ll  give an impromptu performance of it. Suitable costumes are quickly improvised and, voila! We’re off.

Actually, the very start of proceedings feels a little er… forced and I start to suspect that I’m not going to enjoy this all that much, but happily, that feeling is spectacularly short-lived. The look and morals of the era actually lend themselves very well to this surreal gender-bending comedy of mistaken identities – and, just a few lines into Dawn Sievewright’s spirited performance as Lady Tobi Belch,  I am fully on side.

I also love Guy Hughes’ performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. He’s dressed like a full glam Elton John, and even blessed with a thoughtful Your Song-style ballad about his former days as a knight-errant. It’s decidedly odd, but it really works.

But it’s the role of Malvolio that is the real gift to any actor. Is there a more heart-rending character in all of the bard’s canon? I suspect not. Christopher Green makes an absolute feast of the role, all buttoned-up and controlled in his earlier manifestation, and then quite spectacular when transported by the power of love. The moment when he prances onstage in yellow cross-gartered stockings and (quite literally) lets his hair down is perhaps the production’s most memorable moment, one that earns an ovation all of its own.

I should also add that musical director Aly Macrae’s turn as a kind of groovy priest, shuffling into view and blessing everything in sight, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages, and that’s without him uttering so much as a word.

Wils Wilson directs with aplomb, the costumes, designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, are delightfully bohemian and, as for the original songs by Meilyr Jones, I think it’s safe to say that Will would have heartily approved of them. Shakespeare haters – and they do exist, I’ve met them – will surely find much here to convert them.

What a brilliant start to the new season!

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2017




Once again we have been wowed by some fantastic theatre this year. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of 2017.

The Winter’s Tale – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter's Tale

This thrilling, modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play was dynamic and audacious – with the whole fourth act recast in Scots. We loved every minute of it, especially Maureen Beattie’s performance as Paulina.

Chess: The Musical  – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh


The students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland thrilled the audience with a skilful display of all things theatrical. We loved the sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras) and choral singing that sent chills down our spines.

Nell Gwyn – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwyn\

This superb production of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy was a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through to the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this was fabulous to behold.

Death of a Salesman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Death of a Salesman

It was the direction that made this production so good: Abigail Graham did a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. And Nicholas Woodeson was perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality.

The Toxic Avenger – Pleasance One, Edinburgh

The Toxic Avenger

A musical in the same vein that made Little Shop of Horrors such a pleasure, The Toxic Avenger was an unqualified delight, romping happily along powered by its own exuberance and the efforts of a stellar cast, who gave this everything they had – and then some.

The Power Behind the Crone – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone

This was a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. Alison Skilbeck had absolute control of the material and created an impressive range of distinct, believable characters.

Seagulls – The Leith Volcano, Edinburgh

Volcano Theatre SEagulls at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This was the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre we saw this year. Site-specific productions – when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this (we were in an abandoned church, which had been flooded with forty-five tons of water) – can be truly exciting, and this one had a lot to offer.

Safe Place – Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place

Safe Place provided a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asked (and answered) many questions, all within the framework of a nuanced and intelligent play.

Angels in America: NT Live – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Angels In America

Clocking in at just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s play offered us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic. A truly iconic piece of theatre.

Twelfth Night/Romeo & Juliet – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Twelfth Night

Romeo & Juliet

Merely Theatre gave us some ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare, performing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep. The plays featured only five actors and the casting was gender-blind. It all made for an interesting dynamic and prompted us to re-examine familiar scenes.

Cockpit – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh


Cockpit was a witty, clever play, which saw the Lyceum transformed into a truly immersive space.  Director Wils Wilson served up a fascinating piece of theatre: arresting, thought-provoking, provocative and demanding – and it kept us talking for hours afterwards.

Cinderella – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh


We never thought a pantomime would feature in any ‘best of’ list of ours but, for the second year running, the King’s Theatre’s stalwarts managed to wow us. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott knew exactly how to work their audience, and the special effects were truly spectacular.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Twelfth Night


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Following Philip’s enthusiastic review of their Romeo & Juliet last night, I’m primed to expect good things from Merely Theatre, with their gender-blind double casting and sprightly interpretations of the Bard. And I’m not disappointed: Twelfth Night is an absolute delight, and an interesting counterpoint to the star-crossed lovers’ tragedy. To those who claim Shakespeare’s comedies just aren’t funny (Sir Richard Eyre, amongst others), I say: watch this. It’s hilarious. Even the too-cool-for-school teenage girls sitting in front of me – with their teacher and ‘response to live performance’ booklets – can’t help but laugh after a while. I mean, they give eye-rolling indifference a decent go, but it proves impossible in the face of Tamara Astor’s foolish musical antics (she’s playing the fool – conflated with Maria – so it all makes perfect sense).

The plot’s too well-known for me to detail it here, and – to some extent – this production relies on that familiarity. I’m never in any doubt as to who is who, but I might be, if I didn’t know the play. Hannah Ellis, for example, plays the drunken sot, Sir Toby Belch, as well as Orsino, but the only difference in costume is the addition of a tweed jacket and a bow-tie to denote Olivia’s wayward uncle, and – although Ellis plays them very differently – I think there’s a danger the Duke might appear to be the same man, albeit sobered up. Still, her performance is undoubtedly excellent, as is Robert Myles’ turn as the unfortunate Malvolio, not so much cross-gartered as high-Y-fronted, and stupidly amusing. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose deliver the ‘straight-man’ roles of Olivia and Viola with aplomb; there’s not a single weak link here.

It’s a lively, pacy piece of theatre: deliciously daft, revelling in its silliness. Scott Ellis’s direction is sublime: this show is fast and funny and entertaining all the time. The simple set works extremely well: there’re no unnecessary props or scenery to slow things down. This is seriously good comedy. Do try to catch it if you can.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Twelfth Night

Dan Poole (Toby Belch) and Amy Marchant (Viola) in Filter Theatre's Twelfth Night - photo Mark GarvinFerdy Roberts (Malvolio) in Filter Theatre's Twelfth Night - photo by Robert Day


Home, Manchester

If you’re planning to do Shakespeare, you pretty much have two choices: you can play it straight, like the admirable King Lear currently coming to the end of its run at the Royal Exchange, Manchester – or you can ‘do something completely different with it.’ Filter’s production of Twelfth Night certainly fits into the latter category. I mean, when else have you seen a production of the play that includes an audience-participatory game of Butt Head half way through… a production where a lively conga line of dancing audience members is interrupted by the delivery of hot pizza? This is Shakespeare taken to the very edge, reshaped, remodelled and radically stripped back. Mostly it works well.

As you take your seats it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the usual relaxed evening at the theatre. The stage is pretty much filled by musicians and as the play begins, the house lights are left on, the better to involve the audience. Orsino (Harry Jardine) strolls on and puts the band through its musical paces, before launching into ‘If music be the food of love,’ and then we’re off at a sprint, because this is ninety minutes of energetic action with barely a pause for breath. (It helps if you have at least a working knowledge of the original play, because there’s not much here in the way of set-up.) Much of the text is delivered in the form of punky songs, actors conflate characters (Jardine plays both Orsino and Aguecheek) and some of the sub plots are simply thrown out with the bathwater.

Mind you, it’s not all gimmicks. Dan Poole gives a roistering interpretation of Sir Toby Belch, as a hapless drunkard clutching a carrier bag full of lager cans and Ferdy Roberts is a splendid Malvolio, whose transformation from a stiff-backed martinet into a yellow-stocking clad degenerate is one of the evening’s highlights. I loved the fact that Viola (Amy Marchant) borrowed her male disguise from a bloke in the audience and her interplay with a radio weather forecaster was great fun.

As you might expect with something as freeform as this, not everything in the performance is perfect. The regular recourse to the use of a tiny speaker to distort some of the actors voices occasionally makes it hard to understand what’s actually being said and one of the extended comic routines between Belch and Aguecheek goes on rather too long for comfort, even though it comes good in the end. While I don’t fully agree with Philomena Cunk’s assertion – ‘If you go to watch a Shakespeare comedy today, you’ll hear the audience laughing as though there are jokes in there, even though there definitely aren’t.’ – I understand exactly what she’s driving at. Happily, this isn’t the case here. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time I laughed quite so much at the Bard of Stratford (apart from a Macbeth I saw back in the day where the titular hero accidentally chinned himself with the handle of his broadsword).

My only regret? I should have gone on stage for one of those free shots of tequila. Now that’s something you don’t usually get to say in these circumstances! Twelfth Night is on at Home, Manchester until the 14th May, then moves on to the Theatre Royal Plymouth from the 16th to the 21st May.

4 stars

Philip Caveney