Twelfth Night: A Cornish Tale – Stafford Gatehouse Theatre

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Sean Turner

If you’re wondering whether the team at the Gatehouse can match last year’s spectacular woodland setting for the annual Stafford Shakespeare, wonder no more. This time round it’s Twelfth Night, and it’s Shakespeare with a Cornish twist, as Illyria is moved to become a small fishing village in Cornwall – and the set that designer Alfie Heywood has created is superb. It has a Harbourmaster’s house, quayside, and a revolving pub (complete with working beer pumps), created and decorated using half a tonne of detritus collected from beaches in the South West in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy’s Ocean Recovery Project. All that is yet to come, though, as the play opens with a shipwreck and that is spectacular too. Lightning flashes and lanterns shine dimly through a gauze, rocking with the ocean, as the ship breaks apart and twins Viola and Sebastian are separated by the waves. It feels pretty authentic, so it’s almost a relief when the storm passes and we’re safely on dry land again.

Twelfth Night is not the most straightforward of Shakespeare’s comedies, with mistaken identities and love triangles. Understanding who’s who, the relationships, the backstory and the scene setting are pretty important if the audience is to get the best out of it. It’s a problem, then, when Viola (Molly Windsor) rattles through her initial dialogue so fast it seems she’s hardly pausing for breath. It’s not an issue confined to that scene, sadly, as she struggles to pitch it just right from time to time throughout – either too fast, garbled or else lacking nuance and emotion. A little more attention to pacing would help enormously.

Natalie Anderson gives us a flirty Olivia, here reinvented as the pub owner, as she rejects the attentions of harbourmaster Orsino (a fine Peter Watts) and desperately tries to attract the affections of his messenger Cesario (who’s actually a disguised Viola). This is a landlady who knows her mind and is determined to get what she wants, with a nice mix of comedy and confusion as things start to resolve.

Playing Malvolio we have the wonderful Seann Walsh, stepping out of his usual comfort zone to give us a stage acting role. Malvolio is a domineering monster, figure of fun, a comedian, and Walsh manages to bring everything together with an added touch of pathos and an occasional nod to Basil Fawlty – because, after all, the humour in the role is there because we’re laughing at him, not with him. It’s actually rather touching when the plot against him is uncovered. It doesn’t remove the joy of his wonderful scenes when he tries to decipher a cryptic message then appears complete with yellow stockings and cross garters attempting to woo Olivia.

The play has its fair share of comedians, led here by the excellent Bob Golding as Sir Toby Belch. Golding is probably best known for his portrayal of Eric Morecambe and for playing pantomime dames, but here he is showing that he can do Shakespeare with equal ease. Callum Sim is a wickedly funny Andrew Aguecheek, a tourist complete with flippers and surfboard, threatening to steal every scene he appears in. Sha Dessi does an admirable job as a gender-swap Feste, despite being burdened with what are surely some of the unfunniest lines that Shakespeare ever gave to a clown character, making the most of the opportunities she has and enhancing it all with a wonderful range of expressions and a fine singing voice.

Music is an integral part of the production throughout, courtesy of folk band The Evolution of Fishermen (Lucinda Freeburn, Sam Lightfoot-Loftus, Loris Scarpa) who as well as taking minor roles in the play entertain with a mixture of traditional folk songs and original music composed by music director Stephen Hyde. The production would not be as effective as it is without the music, and it’s all carefully judged to enhance the mood at various points – particularly moving when the whole company join together in song.

It’s a piece full of joy and laughter, toe-tapping and foot-stamping music, and touching moments culminating in the final reunion scene between Viola and Sebastian. The concept of setting it in a Cornish village works incredibly well, and the set and portrayal of different village characters and tourists all adds to the feel. There’s so much that’s enjoyable going on that it’s easy to overlook the flaws and appreciate it for what it is.

Runs until 7 July 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Brilliantly reconceived.

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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