Review: Twelfth Night at French Protestant Church, Soho

Twelfth Night: a story of love, disguise and trickery, where nothing and nobody is quite what they seem. It seems fitting that a play in which appearance versus reality is such a prominent theme should be visually stunning, and Scena Mundi’s adaptation doesn’t disappoint; the French Protestant Church in Soho Square provides a unique and beautiful setting for what proves to be a classy production.

Shipwrecked in Illyria, Viola (Harriet Hare) disguises herself as a boy and gets a job working for the Duke Orsino (Pip Brignall). He sends her with messages of love to Olivia (Emma Hall), who falls instead for Viola – who unfortunately happens to be in love with Orsino. Then Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Clare Brice) turns up, and everything gets even more confusing, before finally resolving itself in typically neat Shakespearean fashion. Meanwhile, Olivia’s drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Jack Christie) is hatching a plot with his friends Maria (Clare Brice again), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Thomas Winsor) and Fabian (David Keogh) to make a fool of the pompous Malvolio (Martin Prest) by convincing him Olivia’s in love with him. And all this is quietly observed by the Fool, Feste (Edward Fisher) – who, ironically, may just be the wisest man on the stage.

Cecilia Dorland’s production takes as its starting point the vanity and self-obsession of Shakespeare’s characters, and transforms the aisle into a shiny blue catwalk for the play’s fashion show-inspired opening. Though the fashion theme doesn’t explicitly come up again after this scene, it’s present in Georgia Green’s costumes, which are somewhere between contemporary and modern, giving the play – and each character – a unique and timeless style that fits well in the unusual setting.

Photo credit: Jessy Boon Cowler
Photo credit: Jessy Boon Cowler

The cast do a great job of teasing out the complexities and less attractive aspects of their characters, and at the same time revealing the play to be more than a straightforward comedy that’s just out for laughs. Though there are a good number of laughs to be had – Martin Prest in particular gives an outstanding comic performance as Malvolio, with an array of disapproving facial expressions (and a surprising flexibility during the infamous yellow stockings scene), and the scene in which Orsino starts to feel an attraction to Viola in her boy’s disguise is both funny and sweetly touching. On the other hand, the later confusion between Viola and Sebastian falls a little bit flat, possibly because the two actors playing the twins look nothing alike.

While Malvolio is easy to laugh at because he’s so consistently unpleasant, there are other characters who turn unexpectedly to the dark side, and it’s these performances that prove most memorable. Sir Toby, played by Jack Christie, seems at first to be a loveable drunk, but ultimately reveals himself to be nothing more than a bully. Tricking Malvolio is one thing, but when he turns on his friend Sir Andrew (played with a child-like vulnerability by Thomas Winsor), it feels a step too far, and is actually a bit uncomfortable to watch. Edward Fisher’s Feste is also a mildly discomfiting presence; as the Fool, he provides entertainment through his wit and music, but at the same time has the feeling of a conductor, seeing and knowing all, with the power to make or break his fellow characters as he wishes.

Scena Mundi’s adaptation of Twelfth Night has plenty to recommend it: visually striking, with strong performances and several laugh out loud moments, the play also offers up a warning about the dangers of putting style over substance – particularly in matters of the heart. Great fun and well worth a look, especially if you enjoy your theatre in unusual locations.

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