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Twelfth Night – Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Rae McKen

Reviewer: Edie R


Custom/Practice’s production of “Twelfth Night” gets off to an arresting start as Duke Orsino’s recliner metamorphoses into tinfoil waves, from which Viola (Alex Whitworth) is dragged, spitting water. And once the young cast have engaged their audience, they never let them go. There’s a freshness to their take on Shakespeare’s 411-year-old comedy of love triangles and mistaken identities which keeps on asserting itself.

All the cast turn in gleeful performances that have the audience laughing throughout (even in the serious bits!). James Corley, who plays his Sir Toby Belch as a sort of “Gap Yah” Orlando, arrives onstage in a kangaroo onesie: “These clothes are good enough to drink in”, he declares, unanswerably. Richard Keiss’ lovably foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek cuts his caper Gangnam style. Malvolio (Fred Gray) puts in a starry turn in the gulling scene, only to excel himself in yellow stockings, contorting on the floor in a series of weird and wonderful warm-up exercises that have Shanaya Rafaat’s Olivia “corpsing” all over the place.

The love scenes are the leak that threatens to shipwreck this production. None of the leads would pass a GCSE in chemistry. There’s no spark between Alex Whitworth and Rupert Charmak’s whining, squeaky Orsino (and who can blame her?). Shanaya Rafaat plays for laughs in her lustful pursuit of Viola, and bypasses all the poignancy and indeed the plausibility of her character’s unrequited love.

It’s as though director Rae Mcken recognises that something is lacking, but she tackles the problem of her un-smouldering cast with childish crudeness. Whenever the play reaches a moment charged with emotion – Viola’s willow cabin speech, her barely-veiled confession of love to Orsino in Act Two – the audience is treated to some soppy canned music or a “gay” kiss. It’s unsubtlety worthy of the director in Angela Carter’s “Wise Children” who surrounds Bottom with a phalanx of tittering cherubs to show the audience where to laugh in his desperately unfunny “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

But if the cast struggles to portray erotic love, the brother-sister love between Alex Whitworth and David Palmstrom’s Sebastian is palpable and gorgeous. The twins’ reunion in the final scene, across time and shipwreck, is intensified by the intimate space of the Lion &Unicorn Theatre, and wrung at least one tear from their audience, as this reviewer can vouch! And the sibling dynamic the two establish in the short time they’re onstage together is natural and sweet. David Palmstrom throughout the play manages to get a lot out of a relatively small rôle, and his grounded Sebastian is a perfect complement to Alex Whitworth’s bolshie, generous Viola.

It’s a very happy take on “Twelfth Night”, which chooses to leave almost no one hanging in the famously ambivalent fifth act. Antonio (Josh Enright), the outlawed sea captain whose homoerotically-charged love for Sebastian traditionally leaves him out in the cold, gets absorbed into the juice and joy as each character hugs him in turn; Shanaya Rafaat, far from seeming hurt that she’s been fooled into marrying a man she barely knows, looks like all her Twelfth Nights have come at once when her crush turns out to be two handsome young “men” instead of one (“Most wonderful!”). Indeed, it’s a credit to Fred Gray’s power as an actor that no one laughs as he delivers Malvolio’s wounded “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”. It’s not a production that dwells much upon the play’s serious undertones.

Still, it’s hard to say no to a bit of undiluted joy, and this production is as “kind” and “fresh with love” (if not with romance) as Viola’s storm.

Photo: Ciaran Cunningham

Runs until 23rd February


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