“It’s middle-of-the-road Shakespeare on display here though, with jokes found in physicality more than the text”
Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect home for this fun and frivolous production of Twelfth Night, transferring after a popular run at the Watermill Theatre. The production oozes old-fashioned charm, and, with its talented troupe of actor-musicians performing a play so preoccupied with the power of music, is an energetic joy to behold.
Sir Toby Belch is our MC in ‘The Elephant Jazz Club’, and wittily guides us through some lovely swing numbers to kick off the show. Each cast member gets to show off some of their musical and dancing talents early on, and the range of instruments on show, and the number of instruments played by each member of the ensemble is incredible. For fans of swing covers of recent hits, this is the show for you. Orsino (Jamie Satterthwaite) charges recently shipwrecked twin-in-disguise Viola (Rebecca Lee) to woo the mourning Olivia on his behalf, little knowing that Viola actually loves him, and, as the show goes on, that Olivia is more interested in the servant than the master. This comedy is less about plot and more about antics, with Belch, Aguecheek and Feste providing enough mischief conning Malvolio (played with relish by Peter Dukes) to keep this audience roaring with laughter.
The songs, interwoven throughout, are gorgeous. Suits, hats and cigarettes are on full display to build the image of a twenties jazz club, and, though not providing a clear context for the story, nor adding anything other than a pretty aesthetic, the era seems to invite audiences to kick off their shoes and have some fun.
On the whole, the ensemble work hard and give energetic and exaggerated performances. Mike Slader makes for a comically over-the-top Aguecheek, reminiscent of a greasy Crispin Glover, and Dukes’ Malvolio is stoic and uptight, making his downfall (in all its drag glory) even greater to see. It’s middle-of-the-road Shakespeare on display here though, with jokes found in physicality more than the text, and most players’ delivery feels a little too theatrical and forced at times. A touch more variety in delivery, or belief in what is being said, may help the meaning to shine through clearer.
Lusciously lit in this beautiful space makes this production a hit though, and the audience were whooping and cheering raucously as the ensemble took their bows. Cracking comedy and tunes you can’t help tap your feet to are the order of the day, and this production delivers on all fronts.
“Artistic Director Paul Hart and his youthful players have magnificently overcome the twin risks of over-familiarity and complacency in this joyful new production”
Buried deep in the English countryside is a little theatre that consistently beguiles. The 200-seat Watermill just outside Newbury stages its own plays twelve times each year. Casts live together throughout every production and shows are marked by both excellent ensemble work and by high levels of creativity and innovation.
But how to shine new light on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows’. And so do we all, for the play is a favourite of almost every outdoor theatre season, consistently ranking in the top three of all the Bard’s thirty seven plays. We love to laugh again (and again) at the play within a play, with its hackneyed ‘rude mechanicals’, two fingers held up to make another chink in the wall.
Watermill Artistic Director Paul Hart and his youthful players have magnificently overcome the twin risks of over-familiarity and complacency in this joyful new production. Appropriately enough for a play about make-believe, the show opens with a shadowy view of theatre fly ropes, part of a stage design by Kate Lias. Rope tricks of various kinds help make the magic in this celebratory show which also has a strong commitment to diversity.
Sign language is an integral part of the production, since the cast includes a co-founder of the Deaf & Hearing Theatre Company in a speaking role. Sophie Stone’s partially signed scenes with Evening Standard award winning Tyrone Huntley are delightful, the signing very much enhancing the show. As well as being a witty and persuasive actor, Tyrone Huntley has a fine singing voice. Singing and signing also combine in a moving ensemble number after the interval.
There’s more magic in the mix when shadow play begins behind a spangly red curtain that descends rapidly to transform the enchanted wood into a nightclub. It’s a good setting for some witty musical interpolations. Is this the first Midsummer Night’s Dream to feature Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Blue Moon’? In other scenes the always engaging Eva Feiler as Puck cleverly works dolls to underline the point that we are witnessing a dream time, engineered by otherworldly creatures for their own amusement.
Victoria Blunt was brilliant as Bottom, switching from broad Lancashire to a booming Gielgud parody as the most thespish of the ‘rude mechanicals’ who finally get to perform their play within a play right at the end of the show.
As Oberon, ‘King of Shadows’ Jamie Satterthwaite seemed at first a little too insubstantial for the patriarchal world of Athens where a father let alone a king of the fairies ‘should be as a god’ but he gained authority as the evening went on.
Some careful cuts and rearrangements are characteristic of the close reading that’s evidently gone into a show that quite bursts with ideas. The night this reviewer saw it, Emma McDonald’s role as Titania was magnificently covered at very short notice by Rebecca Lee. She appeared to be all but word-perfect, with a vampish authority that was most engaging. Her substitution may have understandably explained a slightly hectic breathlessness that characterised more than one scene in the performance I saw.
The show ends in a magnificently farcical version of ‘Pyramus & Thisbe’, the play within. Talented Offue Okegbe doubles Snout and Theseus, as well as playing an instrument, like many other cast members. His ‘wall’ is much too funny a surprise to spoil in this review. Joey Hickman was an owlish Demetrius as well as the show’s musical director.
But for a bizarrely unexpected flash of light across the crowd, Tom White’s lighting design was highly effective, particularly so in the final scene ‘If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear.’
On press night, a good part of the audience came whooping to its feet at the end of this big-hearted and dazzling show. Cast and a large supporting crew, including magic, movement and BSL advisers, all deserve huge congratulation for their contributions to such a delightful Dream.