The worst productions of Shakespeare’s comedies supplement dated jokes with bawdy thrusting and innuendo. But the best just as much scope for innovation than any of the history plays or the tragedies. Thankfully, this production of Twelfth Night falls deftly into the latter category; it’s a vibrant, energetic flight of fancy that’s just as skillful as it is enjoyable.
For the uninitiated, the story begins with Orsino hiring Viola to help him woo Countess Olivia. Olivia falls in love with Viola (disguised as a boy), Viola falls for Orsino and a classic love triangle is created. Throw in some plotting by their servants and you’ve got a delightfully sticky situation.
Tamsin Grieg is undeniably the draw here, and she doesn’t disappoint as Olivia’s servant Malvolia. A gifted physical performer, the slightest swish of her austere brown bob has audience members in fits and she plays around wantonly with her phrasing, carving modern mischief into every medieval metaphor.
In fact, the cast knit together so perfectly that it feels more like revisiting a favourite sitcom than a three-hour farce. Phoebe Fox and Tamara Lawrance, as Olivia and Viola, bring depth and warmth to traditionally thankless roles as love-addled women.
Although the most regular titters were saved for Sir Toby Belch, Tim McMullan’s hedonistic Robert Downey Jr/Laurence Llewllyn-Bowen crossbreed, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played with a disarming naivety by Daniel Rigby. Grieg is joined by Smack the Pony co-star Doon Mackichan too, who makes an unusually worldly Feste.
The set, a wooden protractor that peels apart to reveal the hull of a ship, a glass conservatory and even a swimming pool, makes full use of the Olivier Theatre’s drum revolve, and makes the constant scene changes seem curiously wondrous, rather than incredibly tedious, as they have a tendency to be in Twelfth Night.
Stuffed with infectious energy from beginning to end, this is a terrifically fun production that probably warrants seeing a second night.