Review: Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse

OVO’s reimagining of Twelfth Night begins like any other: at sea, with the devastating shipwreck that separates twins Viola (Lucy Crick) and Sebastian (Joshua Newman). But unlike most, this version never reaches land, as vaudeville performer Viola is saved from the waves and brought on board the cruise ship SS Illyria at the height of the roaring 20s. In this adaptation, Orsino (Will Forester) is the captain, Olivia (Emma Watson) is a fabulously famous actress, and Lady Toby Belch (Anna Franklin) is a washed up music hall star (I’m not being mean; that’s what it says in the programme).

Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse
Photo credit: Lou Morris Photography

It’s a clever premise, and one that works particularly well at the Rose Playhouse, where it takes very little imagination to transform the small wooden stage area into a ship’s deck. By setting the action at sea, director Adam Nichols brings to the production an atmosphere of stifling luxury; at the end of the day, this is basically a story of bored rich people amusing themselves with drink, song and fairly meaningless romantic dalliances. It’s still a comedy with plenty of laugh out loud moments, but this version places more emphasis on the spiteful bullying of Olivia’s uptight PA Malvolia (Faith Turner) and nice but dim “upper class twit” Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Douglas). It feels appropriate, then, that these two characters should get to have the final word – though it’s equally disheartening that most of the others, having had a good laugh about it all, don’t bother to stick around to hear it.

Equally interesting is the gender switching, inspired by the changes that took place around gender and sexuality in the 1920s. Two pivotal characters – Malvolia and Lady Toby – are now women, which mixes things up not only in terms of the potential romantic pairings but also the gender politics. Orsino might be the ship’s captain in name, but in reality the male characters are reduced to little more than onlookers who things happen to; it’s the women who drive the action forward, and though some of their actions are despicable, that new perspective feels refreshing and rather enjoyable.

The 20s setting is punctuated by jazz versions of more recent hits from the likes of Britney, Rihanna and Katy Perry, which should probably feel jarring but actually works surprisingly well. That said, there are a lot of songs squeezed into quite a short play (90 minutes), not all of which contribute much to the plot – although there are undeniably some great performances, particularly from Hannah Francis-Baker’s Feste, who in this version is not a Fool but the ship’s Master of Ceremonies. In addition to singing, the cast also provide their own music, with the piano in particular a vital and extremely adaptable part of the set that’s played (and/or climbed on) by most members of the cast at some point.

Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse
Photo credit: Lou Morris Photography

One small but bothersome plot niggle aside – where was Sebastian for the last three months, and how come nobody ever ran into him? – this is an inventive and well-executed reimagining of a well-known comedy. There are laughs aplenty, but where the play really shows its strength is in its drawing out of the nastier aspects of human nature, which are so often brushed aside or treated as just a bit of fun. This brings a fresh perspective to a story many of us will have seen several times before, and that in itself is quite an achievement.

Twelfth Night is at the Rose Playhouse until 5th May (and if they offer you a blanket, take it – it gets cold in there…)

Review: Macbeth at Jacksons Lane

There’s a lot to like about Proteus Theatre’s original take on Macbeth, especially if you’re a fan of all things 80s. The action of Shakespeare’s tragedy has been transplanted to the cut-throat financial markets of London in 1987, inspired by the crash of Black Monday. Director Mary Swan’s vision is one that fits well with the story of Macbeth, in which power is everything and rivals will stop at nothing to come out on top – but despite some solid performances and strong design decisions, the production as a whole never quite takes off.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Unfortunately, this is largely due to an unconvincing portrayal of Macbeth by Riz Meedin. Though he does a decent enough job as the hen-pecked husband who’s browbeaten into regicide by his scheming, ambitious wife (Alexandra Afryea), the character never really develops beyond that. Even later in the play, his Macbeth still feels hesitant and not at all like the murderous tyrant hellbent on slaughtering men, women and children alike to secure his position. If anything, Danny Charles’ slightly sleazy Duncan and Jessica Andrade’s manipulative Malcolm come across as more threatening.

While both Charles and Andrade prove themselves adept at playing multiple parts (including a couple of very entertaining cameos), the play’s strongest performances come from Alexandra Afryea as Lady Macbeth – already at the brink of insanity when the play begins as a result of both her ambition and her grief for a lost child – and Umar Butt, in two very different guises as Banquo and Ross; his appearance as the ghost Banquo is one of the play’s most striking (and gruesome) scenes.

The 80s setting is cleverly worked in; each scene change is heralded by another classic hit, and the characters’ power suits and corded phones leave us with no doubt what decade we’re in. Instead of a crown, the current “king” is portrayed as a sort of mafia don figure with their coat draped across their shoulders, Macbeth snorts cocaine before murdering Duncan, and Banquo and Fleance head out for their fateful ride wearing motorcycle helmets. Katharine Heath’s clever multifunctional set design finds the characters first battling it out on the stock exchange trading floor (with Duncan and Scott on the rise; a nice detail) but with a few simple rearrangements transforms into a lift, an office, a dinner table and a phone box, among others.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

The concept does slightly lose its way in the final battle, because it’s not really clear who’s fighting who, or how or where. The confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth also feels a bit anticlimactic, although the framing of Macbeth’s killing as a hit rather than a death in combat is interesting and gives the play’s conclusion an original new angle. There’s certainly no lack of drama, either, with Peter Harrison’s excellent lighting design bringing an intensity to the stage even at times when it’s missing from the performance.

Shakespeare’s work is so frequently performed that it’s refreshing to see a version like this one, which makes you consider a story you know well in a completely different way. It’s also great to see Shakespeare performed by an entirely BAME cast, something we still don’t see enough of in London. Tapping into the greed and corruption of the business world is a clever move, so it’s a pity that the production itself – though imaginatively staged – doesn’t always reflect the necessary ruthlessness to quite carry it off.

Macbeth was performed at Jacksons Lane on 21st and 22nd March.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing at Gray’s Inn Hall

Well, it’s official. I was already a fan of Antic Disposition’s work after enjoying their productions of Henry V and Richard III – but their latest offering, a joyous and hilarious take on Much Ado About Nothing, has well and truly sealed the deal. The play itself I have all kinds of issues with, but I’m not going to get into those, because I had such a great time watching this production that I’m seriously considering a return visit before the run ends on 1st September.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Transplanted from Italy to a small French village at the end of World War II, Much Ado sees Don Pedro (Theo Landey) and his triumphant soldiers call in to visit the town’s Governor, Leonato (Chris Hespel) on their way home. One of the officers, Claudio (Alexander Varey), falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Floriane Andersen), and Don Pedro steps in to arrange their marriage. He then turns his attention to convincing Hero’s cousin Béatrice (Chiraz Aïch) and another of his men, Benedick (Nicholas Osmond), that their constant bickering actually masks much deeper feelings. It’s all going swimmingly, until Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Alfie Webster) teams up with soldier Borachio (Tommy Burgess) and Hero’s unwitting maid Margaret (Molly Miles) to convince Claudio that Hero’s been unfaithful to him, leading him to publicly shame her and leave her for dead on her wedding day. But this is a Shakespearean comedy, so we can all guess what happens next: Don John’s plot is uncovered, all is forgiven, and everyone has a song and dance to end the evening.

The Anglo-French cast are superb. Chiraz Aïch and Nicholas Osmond give brilliant verbal and physical comedy performances as Béatrice and Benedick, while Alexander Varey is a perfectly petulant Claudio to Floriane Andersen’s tender-hearted (and, in my opinion, far too forgiving) Hero. But the stars of the show, for me, are the two relatively minor characters of Dogberry and Verges, played by the wonderful Louis Bernard and Scott Brooks. Presumably there’s not a lot of policing to be done in this small rural village, because Constable Dogberry and his long-suffering deputy also appear to run – somewhat ineptly – a cafe on the side. This not only means we get to see much more of their characters in Act 1 than we usually would; it also allows directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero to explore the predominantly silent comedic style of French film director Jacques Tati. Bernard is particularly delightful to watch; we may not understand everything he says but such is his charisma it really doesn’t matter – and because English isn’t Dogberry’s native language, we’re much more sympathetically inclined than usual towards him and his bizarre vocabulary. (Also, “I am an ass!” sounds much funnier in a French accent.)

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

In addition to the bilingual cast, there are other elements of the production that will be familiar to fans of Antic Disposition’s previous shows. Music plays an important part in the play; Nick Barstow’s compositions, performed by the cast, contribute to the evening’s celebratory mood. The venue too is unique: having visited some of the nation’s most stunning cathedrals during July, followed by performances in France earlier this month, the tour concludes at London’s historic Gray’s Inn Hall, which is transformed for the occasion into Dogberry’s very traditional French cafe.

In summary, this production is so much fun that you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face (and possibly with a hankering to run away to the French countryside). Don’t miss the final few opportunities to be charmed by this riotously entertaining clash of cultures.

Much Ado About Nothing is at Gray’s Inn Hall until 1st September.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it…

Review: Knights of the Rose at the Arts Theatre

On paper, Knights of the Rose is everything I ever wanted in a show. A Shakespearean rock musical, with a soundtrack featuring the likes of Bon Jovi, REM and Muse, and a cast of impressive West End talent, many of them sporting guyliner and leather trousers whilst rocking out with an electric guitar and a big sword. What’s not to love?

In practice… well, it’s now been 24 hours, and I still don’t quite know what I watched – literally, it’s impossible to tell if we’re meant to take Knights of the Rose seriously or treat it as the big silly spoof that it is. And if we have to ask the question, I have a worried feeling that means it’s the former.

Knights of the Rose at Arts Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Dawson

Created by Jennifer Marsden and directed by Racky Plews, Knights of the Rose is the story of Prince Gawain (Andy Moss) and his trusty band of knights, who’ve been away for years fighting a war against various enemies of the realm. When they come home victorious, everyone rejoices – not least the beautiful Princess Hannah (Katie Birtill) and Lady Isabel (Rebekah Lowings), who are immediately proposed to by Sir Hugo (Oliver Savile) and Prince Gawain respectively, much to the distress of the ladies’ other suitors, Sir Palamon (Chris Cowley) and Sir Horatio (Matt Thorpe). As it turns out, the lovers’ happiness is short-lived, because the men are immediately called away to fight again – for reasons that are unclear – and this time they may not all return…

It all gets off to a promising start, with a suitably macho rendition of Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory from the returning knights. Musically, this is a sign of things to come, and Act 1 is basically hit after hit – the women are Holding Out For a Hero while the knights are Addicted to Love (more on that in a minute); there’s a brilliantly surreal moment when Sir Hugo woos Princess Hannah with a bit of Enrique Iglesias’ Hero, and it all comes to a dramatic, heartfelt conclusion with Meat Loaf’s Is Nothing Sacred, as the characters mourn the end of love affairs that have lasted approximately three minutes. In between musical numbers, the script is a patchwork of quotes from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Marlowe, Keats, Tennyson, Byron, Kipling and more; the literary references are so numerous that they take up three whole pages in the programme. It’s all extremely cheesy – but quite enjoyably so, as long as you’re in the mood for a bit of silliness.

Unfortunately, the show uses up most of its best material before the interval, and by the time we return it seems to have rather run out of steam. A couple of protracted death scenes are paired with such bizarre music choices that they become more funny than tragic, while a lacklustre finale leaves us feeling distinctly unsatisfied – and only partly because some of us spent the entire night waiting in vain for Livin’ on a Prayer.

Knights of the Rose at Arts Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Dawson

And therein lies the most frustrating thing about Knights of the Rose: the wasted potential of a show that sounded so promising. Some of the best tracks are thrown away – Everybody Hurts and Don’t Speak are prime examples – while others, like The Calling’s Wherever You Will Go, bear such tenuous links to what’s happening on stage that it becomes very hard to take even the best performances seriously. The plot is thin; even an attempt to make things interesting by introducing a villain ends with a bit of a whimper, and – possibly most irritating of all, particularly given the female-led creative team behind the show – the women serve absolutely no purpose except as beautiful love interests for the men to fight over. (This being Shakespeare of sorts, I kept half hoping at least one of them would disguise herself as a boy and head off to war, but sadly not.)

But let’s try and end on a positive note, because despite everything the show does still manage to be quite fun. It’s surreal, utterly mental fun – but if you’re willing to embrace the madness (and you’re not a diehard scholar of Shakespeare) there’s an entertaining enough evening to be had.

Knights of the Rose is at the Arts Theatre until 26th August.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Wilton’s Music Hall

You know it’s officially summer when A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to town. Like A Christmas Carol in December, it seems like every year brings us at least one new production of Shakespeare’s comedy, and it’s easy to give in to Dream fatigue and assume the play can’t possibly have anything original left to say.

The Faction have taken this on board with their stripped back production, and director Mark Leipacher keeps things simple so that the focus returns to the original text without the distraction of elaborate new interpretations. By having so little in the way of set or costumes – all the characters wear modern everyday clothes, and the only nod to the Athenian setting is the orb of the moon which hangs above the stage – we’re able to see the story through fresh eyes and draw new conclusions as to what it’s all about. Personally, I picked up on several themes and textual elements that I’d never considered before in 20 years of seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed; it’s both refreshing and exciting to see such a well-worn classic through fresh eyes.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Having said all that, ironically you do need to know the play reasonably well to keep up with the complex and fast-moving plot – particularly as the multi-roling cast can change character in the blink of an eye, without any change of costume and often without even leaving the stage. For the most part the versatility of the actors means this works well, but there are some moments where scenes blur together and it takes a while to unpick who’s now playing who. (On the plus side, doubling up the roles does mean that the Mechanicals get to conclude the show and perform their gloriously terrible Pyramus and Thisbe uninterrupted by the mocking taunts of the newly-weds.)

Given the treatment of women in the play (and – let’s be honest – most of Shakespeare’s plays), it’s good to quickly see some strong female leads emerge. Tamarin McGinley doubles as Hippolyta, who might be marrying Theseus (Herb Cuanalo) against her will but has no intention of entering the union meekly, and Titania, who refuses to give up her page to Oberon despite all his threats. Meanwhile Lowri Izzard’s Hermia risks everything to avoid her own arranged marriage, and fiercely defends her virtue even against the man she’s just eloped with, insisting that Lysander (Jeremy Ang Jones) sleep further away from her despite his best efforts to convince her otherwise.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

In many ways this is a play of two halves; while Act 1 sets the scene and explores some of the story’s darker themes, Act 2 is pretty much wall-to-wall laughs, with Laura Evelyn’s bewildered Helena, Christopher Hughes’ hilariously over-the-top Bottom and Christopher York’s self-conscious Snout (a.k.a. The Wall) stealing the show. The whole cast display great physicality throughout – the lovers’ fight is a particular highlight, as is the moment Linda Marlowe’s Puck enters on Bottom’s back, her hands raised to create his donkey ears.

If ever we needed proof that Shakespeare can still be relevant to a 21st century audience, we have it in this production. It’s got royal weddings, climate change and honour killings, gender roles, body image and the question of consent, all wrapped up in a joyously entertaining evening with great physical comedy and strong performances from a talented ensemble. It takes some doing to breathe new life into such a well-known text, but The Faction have pulled it off. Dream fatigue – what’s that?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream concludes its run at Wilton’s Music Hall on 30th June. Visit The Faction’s website for details of future productions.