Twelfth Night Review

Rose Playhouse – until 5 May 2019

Reviewed by Claire Roderick


OVO’s production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies sets the action on cruise liners in the roaring twenties. Sebastian and Viola become entertainers on the doomed SS Elysium, and Orsino is captain of the SS Illyria, with Olivia as a famous actress sailing on his ship.

This suits the tiny performance space well, with only a decorative ship’s rail needed, and the imaginative use of a reinforced piano as stage/storage for props. The audience sit as if watching the action unfold on deck, with the cold air rising from the archaeological dig site and blankets wrapped around their legs helping set the scene of a transatlantic voyage.

The crossdressing comedy is handled well by Lucy Crick as Viola/Cesario, with her discomfort in swimwear as Olivia attempts to seduce her one of the highlights of the show. As needed, all of the characters are broadly drawn, with James Douglas as the tweed wearing twit Aguecheek creating comedy gold effortlessly with facial expressions alone. Malvolio becomes Malvolia, and Faith Turner nails the judgemental haughtiness, still managing to make her sympathetic from the beginning. This is helped by the antics of Lady Toby (Anna Franklin) and her cronies all feeling forced and their laughter strained. The gender switching of both Malvolio and Toby is a little uneven, as Malvolia still adores Olivia, but Maria’s affections are switched from Toby to Fabian for some reason.

The twenties setting means that there is plenty of scope for jazz versions of fantastic modern songs from Britney Spears, Rihanna and Radiohead. This has all been done before, but the cast make a fine effort playing instruments and singing songs that feel more and more awkwardly shoehorned into the production as the play goes on. Hannah Francis-Baker holds things together as Feste, with the strongest and most natural singing performance.

The necessary cuts to fit the plot, and songs, into the short running time don’t damage the production, and the beautifully downbeat and heart-rending musical ending is a brilliant decision. I just wish director Adam Nichols had made more choices like this throughout – then this production could have been an exciting and fresh revelation, rather than a solidly enjoyable, but safe experience.