“the huge amount of thought, work, imagination and versatility makes this Twelfth Night an enjoyable evening of love, laughter and, of course, cross-dressing”
Joining recent updated versions of Shakespearean favourites, Bridge House Productions presents a bright and spirited Twelfth Night with a colourful crowd of characters, plenty of music and lashings of vitality. Without any specific resetting, director, Guy Retallack, designs each role to become a modern and, in some cases, unusual conception of the original, bringing a refreshing take on the familiar script. As the audience sits around the shore of Illyria – a discreetly tasteful set by Natalie Johnson – five talented actors multitask, changing accents and costumes to create an array of distinctive personalities to tell this tale of love with energy, commitment and skill.
The lighting (Richard Williamson) and sound (Phil Lee) both fill the small theatre space with atmosphere but unlike other recent productions – Othello in the British Raj, the digital Facebook world of Much Ado, pre-war 1920s Midsummer Night’s Dream – Guy Retallack’s adaptation lacks a focal point in time or place for the cast to work around and identify with; without it, the performance doesn’t quite gel. The direction concentrates on a group of interesting and innovative individuals with a bond in certain relationships such as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, but missing in others, importantly between Orsino and Viola. There are moments, for example Malvolio’s letter-reading, where a feeling of ensemble comes from some superb choreography by Paul Harris, but the denouement in the second half slackens without the natural integration of the characters to spark each other off.
Already a complexity of hidden identities, the doubling up by the company adds another layer to the melange. We discover their various qualities and facets, stretched to envelop the many contrasting portrayals. Eve Niker slips deftly into Viola’s disguise as Cesario and then switches to a wonderful, twinklingly Irish Maria. As Orsino and Malvolio, George Maguire steps from sleek American to pinched English, perhaps blending slightly towards the end, while, as well as enhancing the show with his live music, Ben Woods plays a diverse selection of parts, notably a hippie Feste and nit-witted Sir Andrew. Fayez Bakhsh (Sir Toby) and Miriam Grace Edwards (Olivia) both find an approach which sheds new light on clichéd interpretations and we hear Shakespeare’s lines with fresh voices
At almost three hours, it is a substantial rendering of this comedy. Nonetheless, the huge amount of thought, work, imagination and versatility makes this Twelfth Night an enjoyable evening of love, laughter and, of course, cross-dressing.
“For all its narrative flaws, it would take a stonier heart than mine to resist this dose of festive cheer and performance by a talented cast”
First things first: the vocal skills on display in this show are great. So great in fact, they unfortunately serve to highlight an at times baffling plot.
The Plaids are a sixties close harmony group who, in the Forever Plaid musical which precedes this, lose their lives in a tragic accident but return to earth to seek stardom. This instalment sees them again travel from the firmament to regale us with festive delights because … well, a convincing reason is elusive.
This doesn’t really matter, but it also becomes apparent that it’s the Plaids’ lifelong ambition to have their own Christmas TV special. This is one of several indications of a critical challenge for audiences: a Pacific-sized gap in cultural reference which is hard to traverse. For American viewers for whom the annual variety show is a central part of the holidays, this would make more sense.
The central premise, then, feels weaker than a melting icicle. But the musical performances are great fun; we find ourselves hankering for the next song during dialogue expounding the curious narrative. Lines are delivered with sometimes excessively earnest if admirable gusto, and one or two of the accents are America by way of the UK. In such a small venue, the brio (and later, the handbells) can border on the overpowering.
The studio space, above a great-looking pub, does allow for the full benefit of the music, especially in the fun a cappella Sha-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream). Musical Director Laurie Denman on the piano as well as voice is especially cracking, with a rendition of Kiss of Fire bringing comedic physicality into the slower first half. Later, ‘Twuz Tha Nite B4 Xmas introduces a welcome slice of funk to cut through the saccharine and It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas has us swaying. Passing mention must be made of fact that during the music and movement, the noisy stage surface becomes an occasional distraction.
Plaid Tidings first came about in a California theatre following the bleakness of 9/11. Arguably, we’re again in dire need of an injection of gentle fun. But Pasadena in 2001 is a long way from contemporary London, and some of the clumsier elements are at odds in the diverse south of the capital. There is an uneasiness in affecting the required Jamaican accent (‘she take ma money and go Christmas shopping’) during one audience singalong. The group wisely limit the Caribbean affectation, but what remains jars today. Equally, the group’s apparent horror when they find themselves under the mistletoe is lazy; is the idea of men kissing really so shocking in 2018?
The evening closes with a collective rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The audience applauds enthusiastically. For all its narrative flaws, it would take a stonier heart than mine to resist this dose of festive cheer and performance by a talented cast.