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Twelfth Night – Theatre Royal, Norwich

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Lu Greer

Boxing, tap dancing and fishnet stockings in Shakespeare – it can only mean that Propeller is back in town. This time around they’re reimagining Twelfth Night, the story of Viola, a young woman that loses her brother at sea, ends up pretending to be a man to work for a Duke, whom she then falls for, while the lady the Duke is trying to impress also falls for Viola, thinking that she is a man. It is a story that in true Shakespearian style is far too complex to explain briefly, but one that is tackled wonderfully by Propeller, as the all-male company give Joseph Chance the inevitable task of being a man playing a woman playing a man. While it could be played entirely for laughs what instead happens, rather surprisingly, is that while there are some excellent moments of comedy, the audience find themselves really feeling for Viola and the other characters.

It really is the comic story of Malvolio (Chris Myles), though, that gives this show a lasting impression. Malvolio is played entirely as a character to be abhorred and so as the audience watch him being set up for a fall, the tension building with it can really be felt within the theatre. Indeed, the real stand-out scene of the entire play comes from this story, as Malvolio stands in the garden and unbeknown to him is observed by Sir Andrew (John Dougall), Sir Toby (Vince Leigh), Feste, (Liam O’Brien) and his ‘zanies’. During this scene, it is not the immortal words that capture the audience but the faultless staging as the crowd of observers seamlesslybecome parts of bushes, statues and even birds as they distract, laugh at, and thoroughly confuse Malvolio.

The entire company of this show are, as with most Propeller tours, mesmerising as they play both their individual rôles and, by donning masks, become part of the ‘zanies’ as well. Among this, though, there are two performances in particular that really stand out. The first of these comes from Gary Shelford as Maria, and not just for his exceptional tap solo. The rôle of Maria as played by a man could have simply become a joke as the actor tottered in kitten heels, but Shelford doesn’t choose to do it. This version of Maria is initially funny as he walks out in a tight to the knee skirt, but it’s soon forgotten that Maria is a man at all, as he plays her with all the sass and wit that Maria should have. The second of these particularly exceptional performances is Liam O’Brein as Feste, as he plays the fool simply, and somewhat quietly, but always making the audience aware that it is the fool that sees everything, and the fool that tells the truth.

This Twelfth Night does have a few of the typical Propeller oddities that will leave the audience in a love/hate divide, however, rather unexpectedly; this production is kept somewhat simpler than usual. While the boxing match is comedy at its finest, and the tap dancing a perfect accompaniment to Feste’s band, this version of the show isn’t overshadowed by those things. It’s funny, it’s engaging, but it lets Shakespeare’s words speak for themselves, and the rarity of that mix really has to be seen to be believed.

Runs Until: Saturday, February 2nd

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