Review: Twelfth Night (Young Vic)
Kwame Kwei Armah and Shaina Taub's musical version of Shakespeare's comedy
There was a festive mood at the Young Vic before the start of Twelfth Night, the show that marks the beginning of the popular Kwame Kwei-Armah's time in charge as artistic director. And that was before the show even started.
Once the cast and a community chorus of 30 people hand out pieces of jerk chicken inside the auditorium, spilling out from Robert Jones's brightly coloured, stylised Notting Hill carnival street set, the good times really began to roll. This very loose musical version of Shakespeare's comedy with music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, is far from perfect, but its benign heart and inclusive warmth make it a welcoming touchstone for the kind of theatre Kwei-Armah wants to produce.
Co-directed by him and Oskar Eustis, the show first saw the light at New York's Public Theater in 2016 as part of their Public Works Program. Odd remnants of Americana still cling: Malvolio sings of being bullied in middle school and playing baseball; there are a lot of power ballads in the US mode. But you sense the British version roughs things up a bit, making the edges more sharp, the humour more broad. Jones's marvellous set creates a tone; it is both witty and practical, allowing Toby Belch to come rolling out of The Illyria Arms and create trouble on the streets, and lovesick Duke Orsino to nip across the road to place a bottle of champagne on Olivia's front doorstep in an attempt to persuade her to love him.
Taub is good at is finding the themes of the play – the link between brother and sister which makes Viola impersonate Sebastian when she thinks he is dead (and thus cause all the play's confusions), the essential arbitrariness of love – and decking them out in song and dance numbers. Some of these are extremely good. Viola's "Disguise you are a devil's blessing", is a wonderfully sleazy riff on the things you find out about yourself when you change your outward appearance. Malvolio's Count Malvolio, is a showstopping, song and tap-dance number (excellent choreography throughout by Lizzi Gee), complete with canes, top hats and glitter. And there's an effective trio for Olivia, Orsino and Viola "If You Were My Love" that expresses longing and doubt. Some of the songs, truthfully, are pretty wallpaper-like and unmemorable. And there are moments when the collision between their contemporary colloquialism and the few remaining words of Shakespearean dialogue becomes too obvious.
But all can be forgiven thanks to a brisk 100-minute running time, the energy of the community chorus (including some glamorous girls in sequins who bring us the news from the streets and fill in the plot points) and some lovely performances from the professional cast, which bring the entire thing to generous life and glide over the bumps.
As Viola, Gabrielle Brooks is a gentle joy, lending warmth and pathos to her love scenes with Rupert Young's awkward Orsino. Natalie Drew makes Olivia's violent mood swings both funny and understandable, and Gbemisola Ikumelo is a fine, feisty Maria and Melissa Allan a strong-voiced Feste.
As for Gerard Carey as Malvolio, swooping across the stage in a double-breasted suit and standing on a Segway, he brings brio and perfect comic timing to proceedings. The slow turn of his head, while he is still standing on the scooter, as he looks with contempt at Cesario, is a masterpiece in itself. It is in keeping with the spirit of the production that his cruel treatment at the hands of Belch and Maria is glossed over fairly quickly; he is given an explanatory number about being misunderstood ("Sometimes it's lonely being great") and allowed to join in the final chorus.
"Open our heart to each others' needs and what a good world this could be," the entire cast sing in an exuberant plea for us to learn to see through one another's eyes. It's not very Shakespearean, or very subtle. But it is undoubtedly fun.