Review: Twelfth Night, Rose Playhouse

There have been some high-profile revivals of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in recent years, what with the National’s 2017 production starring Tamsin Greig, and more recently the Young Vic’s musical adaptation. But OVO Theatre’s current revival, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the Rose Playhouse, is a Twelfth Night with a delightfully modern twist.

Set primarily on a cruise liner the 1920s, this version of Shakespeare’s classic pairs the Bard’s words with well-known chart hits from the 90s and beyond, including Rihanna’s Umbrella, Britney’s Oops I Did It Again and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, all performed by an on-stage jazz band. While it may sound like an unlikely combination, for the most part it works and it works well.

Following the sinking of SS Elysium, Viola (Lucy Crick) is rescued by Duke Orsino (Will Forester), captain of the SS Illyria. Separated from her twin brother and dance partner Sebastian (Joshua Newman), she dons male clothes and becomes Cesario. When Orsino sends her to woo famous actress Olivia (Emma Watson – not of Harry Potter fame), the plan backfires when Olivia takes a shine to Cesario instead. Meanwhile Lady Toby Belch (Anna Franklin) and her comrades decide to play a cruel trick on Olivia’s assistant Malvolia (Faith Turner), with heartwrenching consequences.

Directed by Adam Nichols, Twelfth Night is a well-paced production, running at just 95 minutes. It takes place in the atmospheric (and chilly) Rose Playhouse, above the foundations of the original theatre, and the venue lends itself to the play’s setting. Simon Nicholas’s set is simple but effective, with the stage area transformed into a ship’s deck, while the on stage piano also doubles as a lifeboat and sun deck.

The 14-strong cast all put in admirable performances, with most playing instruments in addition to performing. Anna Franklin oozes charisma as the washed up music hall star Lady Toby, while Lucy Crick and Will Forester have great chemistry as Viola and Orsino (their piano duet of My Heart Will Go On is an apt tune for a play set on a cruise ship). Meanwhile Hannah Francis-Baker is a star in the making and delights as Feste, the Master of Ceremonies, performing many of the songs faultlessly. James Douglas steals pretty much every scene he’s in as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an upper class twit reminiscent of Tim Nice But Dim. His facial expressions evoke just as many laughs as his physical performance. While this production of Twelfth Night is packed full of laughs, it also focuses on the cruel treatment of Malvolia by Lady Toby and her comrades, and it’s when they play their nasty trick on her that Faith Turner really comes into her own. She cuts a sad figure as the betrayed assistant, and her haunting performance of Radiohead’s Creep is one of the highlights of the play.

There are odd times when the action feels a little forced and one or two songs which don’t quite fit with their modern references, but there are also moments of genius pure genius, and it’s surprising just how well Shakespeare’s tale lends itself to modern pop classics. OVO’s Twelfth Night is hilariously random, with great music choices brought to life thanks to energetic performances and strong vocals from the talented cast. Engaging, entertaining and wonderfully unique, Twelfth Night is a fresh and imaginative take on a Shakespeare classic.

Twelfth Night is running at the Rose Playhouse until 5 May.

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Photo credit: Lou Morris Photography

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