Twelfth Night starring Les Dennis at Shakespeare North Playhouse – review

The Not Too Tame co-production runs until 29 June

Les Dennis in a scene from Twelfth Night at Shakespeare North Playhouse
Les Dennis in Twelfth Night, © Patch Dolan

It’s hard to make Shakespeare’s famously convoluted comedy more muddled, but Jimmy Fairhurst’s production has found a way. It introduces a concept that multiplies rather than simplifies the shambolic mess and bagginess.

The play itself is overstuffed with plots that each involve conspiracies, mistaken identities and confusion. The first concerns separated twins Viola and Sebastian, the former drawn into facilitating Duke Orsino’s wooing of Lady Olivia, and then resisting Olivia’s love herself. Alongside this is Olivia’s posse who dupe her servant Malvolio into believing she loves him and will be impressed by a humiliating flirtation. And then there’s lonely Sebastian’s own path to finding his sister again.

It’s an almost impossible ballet to conduct. Fairhurst transposes it all to some sort of music venue suggested by the gig equipment and crowd control metal fencing of Good Teeth’s set. But the loosely defined concept becomes tangled in its own mic cables.

The idea seems inspired by the play’s most famous line, “If music be the food of love, play on”, which Louise Haggerty’s gratingly earnest Feste makes us repeat several times in a call-and-response sequence before even the prologue gets underway. But it’s never clear whether the characters are artists or fans, while some occasionally break out into solos as the lighting shifts into hazy colour and sounds play of an audience cheering. The transition between the backstage space and action of the play is constantly disorienting.

After the faintest suggestion that Viola and Sebastian lose each other in a drug-fuelled concert at the start, lines are bewilderingly retained about her being drowned in a ship accident. Meanwhile Sebastian’s rescuer, Antonio, here becomes a gender-flipped Antonia, and a paramedic rather than a ship’s captain, so floats around distractingly in a St John’s Ambulance uniform.

Some monologues are rapped, and there’s a dizzying array of music and dance interludes that exacerbate the thrashing between either poles of the intensity scale. Rowdy revelry rampages throughout, pushing Feste’s warning that they’ll be “not too tame in the telling”. Many of the performances are cranked up high as though in an attempt to be visible above the clamour. Purvi Parmar’s Olivia is overly hot-headed and impetuous, while Georgia Frost’s portrayal of Viola falling for Orsino is completely lost.

However, Frost’s bright delivery nicely appears like a songwriter, finding romanticised images as sounds skip off her tongue and into the air like dancing musical notes: “with fertile tears, with groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire”. Tom Sturgess’s Sebastian offers a quiet counterpoint, his delivery always deflating as though something’s missing, half full and incomplete without his twin.

Les Dennis gives a workmanlike performance as Malvolio, more of a tired labourer than an obsequious sycophant. There’s not enough of the bark and growl that would compel the other characters’ vengeful cruelty, even when they wake him up. However, the smile he practises for Olivia is comically grotesque, heaving around his drooping lips and hanging mouth as if trying to find the shape they’re supposed to make.

There’s too much fooling and clowning overall, encapsulated by the decision to immediately undercut the final, moving reunion of the twins with the addition of: “What the f**k is going on?” The answer is a show desperate to be anarchic but ends up chaotic. If this music be the food of love, prepare for indigestion.