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.

Interview: Ffion Jones, Merely Theatre

Merely Theatre has just embarked on a new national tour with productions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night in repertory. But there’s a twist in these tales, as company member Ffion Jones explains:

“Each character, or set of characters, is played by both a male and female actor from the full company of ten. Each male-female pairing will play the same parts as each other across both shows.

“All of the actors are off-script before we begin and we rehearse very quickly but precisely, applying what we call our ‘Merely Principles’ from the get-go. The principles are a set of rules we all abide by in rehearsal to create exciting and audience focussed work. They include things like striving to tell the story at all costs and never looking out into the middle distance when we speak. Each actor within the male-female pairings gets tagged in and out whilst rehearsing scenes; this rotation process means that we get used to listening and responding to whichever actor happens to be in front of us, because we can perform with any combination of actors from the other four pairs.”

This unique approach to rehearsal and performance presents a number of challenges. “For example, I am playing only male characters in both plays, purely by chance,” says Ffion. “I can’t help but think about how an audience might receive or judge my performance in comparison to men in other productions. However, because I’ve been with the company for three years now, I have learned to embrace the freedom this can give me as a performer. I don’t really feel inhibited at all and I enjoy bringing the essential humanity to each part that I play and representing the character regardless of gender.”

Merely Theatre was founded in 2010 by Artistic Director Scott Ellis to perform stripped back productions of Shakespeare’s work, and evolved over time to become the first fully gender blind Shakespeare company. “I think that Scott and Merely Theatre are leading the way with gender-blind casting in such a humble, experimental and joyous way that I am so proud to be a part of,” says Ffion. “I was inspired by Scott and Simon’s vision to strip away the unnecessary in Shakespeare and present the heart of the matter. During 2014, Merely produced a season of Shakespeare with no props, no set and no costume. I think our company’s gender-blind ethos goes hand-in-hand so simply with this attitude and it also means that I don’t have to think twice about my gender limitations, which is so liberating and enriching for an actor.”

Following the success of last year’s rep productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, Merely Theatre’s 2017 tour brings us another double bill of classic Shakespeare. “Romeo & Juliet is arguably the most famous Shakespeare play,” says Ffion. “It’s renowned for its love story, but with our simplistic style and raw energy we also hope that we can depict the friendship, familial love and ultimate tragedy found within its poetry. It pairs itself beautifully with Twelfth Night, which showcases Merely’s humour and mischievous nature. It’s a raucous comedy of errors that allows us to really show our silly side as well as remaining true to the compassion of the characters.”

As a repertory company, Ffion explains,  the team have been growing and progressing together as performers for a number of years. “Scott Ellis and Tatty Hennessey, who have co-directed on both tours, have developed their ideas on how to create great Shakespeare and we have all been working on our craft as actors from vocal technique to text work. All of this groundwork serves as the foundation for these shows which, hopefully, will be felt by our audiences in even slicker, more accessible shows. Interestingly enough last year was also the first time in quite a while that Merely weren’t working in-the-round. It may seem rather backward to any other theatre company that we had to work hard to adjust our style to end-on and proscenium arch spaces. Our aim is to create the audience feeling of involvement that in-the-round or outdoor theatre gives and bring that magic to the theatre royals.”

There’s been much debate in recent years about the decline of repertory theatre, but Ffion believes it still has much to offer, for both actors and audience. “Rep theatre allows a company of actors to expand their skills. It has allowed us to take risks, which has led to some great discoveries. Because we continue to make work with the same company of actors it means that we know each other really well and it creates short cuts in the rehearsal room. There’s no awkward ‘getting to know each other’, we know each other’s skills and talents and we know how to encourage each other to make the best work possible. If audiences like our work then they know that they are guaranteed a good show every time they come to see us, and they too can see us grow and continually surprise.”

The 2017 tour is giving Merely the chance to return to some familiar venues: “The joy of the tour is that we can travel the length and breadth of the UK, hopefully entertaining fellow Shakespeare-fans, inspiring the next generation of theatre-goers and introducing Shakespeare to people that may not have engaged with it thus far. I am particularly looking forward to a week touring Northern Ireland at the end of March; we are returning to a number of venues where the company had an incredibly warm welcome and an overwhelming and kind response to the shows. My male acting ‘twin’, Robert, was lucky enough to take that leg of the tour last year, so I can’t wait to see what all the fuss was about!”

So what can we expect from the tour? “You can expect to see a fresh and rarely seen approach to Shakespeare,” concludes Ffion. “Merely Theatre provides simple, energetic and accessible performances of the bard’s best works, affirming that he is indeed a writer that transcends the ages.”

Merely Theatre perform Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night on tour until 25th May. Visit their website for dates and venues.

Interview: Annie McKenzie, Scripts for Supper

A little over a year ago, I was reviewing Annie McKenzie’s solo show Happiness is a Cup of Tea at the 2016 VAULT Festival. Since then, life’s changed a bit for Annie; a few months later, she was performing for a very different audience on her way to becoming a semi-finalist in the 2016 series of BBC’s MasterChef. And now she’s bringing together her two passions in new project Scripts for Supper, which launches in Battersea next week.

“Scripts for Supper is a theatrical dining experience that combines food and theatre in the only way I know how – by feeding people, getting them drunk and telling them a good story,” she explains. “Be that Shakespeare, Chekhov, Lorca or Beckett – it’d be the same, but we choose our food, plays and vices as carefully as possible.”

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For her first production, Annie’s chosen one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, Twelfth Night. The reason? “‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ Need I say more?”

The play will be accompanied by a five-course dinner, with a cocktail and canapés upon arrival, and a menu specially designed for the occasion. “It’s inspired by Shakespeare and Elizabethan England, but has me written all over it,” says Annie. “I cook food that people want to eat. Things that make people go: YUM! You can expect cockles, brown shrimps, pork, potatoes, rhubarb, cheese, cream, booze, booze, booze and a lot more besides! Oh – and did I mention booze?”

The project is a collaboration with Battersea’s London Cooking Project: “My lovely friends Billy and Jack of MasterChef 2016 final fame have done a few fabulous evenings at The London Cooking Project, which is how we came to be put in touch with them,” explains Annie. “If I’m honest though, I think it was pure luck and a bit of serendipity that led to us teaming up. I can’t tell you how wonderful Emma and the team at LDN Cooking Project are. Please look on their website to find out about all the incredible community projects that they’re up to.”

The idea to bring together food and theatre has been brewing for some time, and Annie’s excited about the prospect of combining two of her favourite things. “I had the idea that I wanted to create something with food and theatre ever since I was on MasterChef – it just took a long time to develop it and make it into a reality. It means a huge amount, of course. I’m giving everything I have to this project and am working with people I love dearly. It might be weird not to be ‘acting’ – but I am, in a way… I’m still on show… well, my food is.

“There have been many wonderful projects recently around theatre and food – Faulty Towers, Les Enfants Terribles – let’s just hope my idea can be a contender.”

Catch Scripts For Supper Present… A Retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the London Cooking Project on 4th March.

Review: The Mechanicals’ Twelfth Night at St Giles in the Fields

I last saw Scena Mundi Theatre Company performing Twelfth Night at the stunning French Protestant Church in Soho Square earlier this year. This week they were back, in an equally beautiful venue, with a one night only performance of the same play… but a very different adaptation.

Billed as ‘the new masters of concise classics’, the Scena Mundi Mechanicals specialise in short versions of Shakespeare’s plays, inspired by the memorable amateur actors of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s an intriguing and clever concept, which makes Shakespeare’s work very accessible and adds an original twist to a play many of us will have seen a good few times before. As the four actors – Masters Phil, Jack, Ned and Martin – divide up the roles between them, the stage is set for chaos and comedy, featuring a bearded lady, a dodgy wig, floating hats, and of course yellow stockings.

Photo credit: Jim Templeton-Cross
Photo credit: Jim Templeton-Cross

Given the complex storyline of Twelfth Night, director Cecilia Dorland has done well to cut the script down to almost exactly an hour in a way that still makes sense, and leaves us with a whistle-stop tour of all the key points and characters (well, almost – we’re forced to lose Maria, with Sir Toby Belch taking her place as the architect of Malvolio’s downfall). The performance too, with all its swift costume and character changes, is very skilfully executed by the four-man cast of Pip Brignall, Jack Christie, Edward Fisher and Martin Prest, with nicely understated musical support from flautist Emma Hall.

In fact if anything it’s a bit too well executed – the Mechanicals concept is introduced at the beginning but then seems largely forgotten during the play itself, and though there’s the occasional missing prop or actor’s tantrum, the production on the whole is extremely polished. It feels odd to complain that the acting in a play is too good, but what makes the Midsummer Night’s Dream Mechanicals fun to watch is the fact that their performance is so shambolic, and there’s potential in Scena Mundi’s adaptation for even more well-intentioned mayhem. This band of Mechanicals never get their lines wrong, forget which part they’re playing, or stop the performance to explain to the audience what’s going on; the director never has to intervene, and aside from one brief exchange at the beginning of the show, nobody tries to play all the parts. None of which is a bad thing – it just feels like the framing concept could be further developed for maximum comedy value.

scena-mundi-mechanicals-twelfth-night-rehearsals-091
Photo credit: Jim Templeton-Cross

All that said, this is already a highly original and entertaining production of a classic play. As a bite-sized introduction to Twelfth Night, it’s perfect for newcomers to Shakespeare, who might find the usual two-and-a-half or even three-hour stretch a bit much to take. And let’s be honest, it’s always fun to watch good actors acting badly. This one-off performance was the first in a series of events at St Giles in the Fields to launch Scena Mundi’s 2017 season, and I look forward to seeing more of them in the coming months.


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Review: Twelfth Night at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter will probably have noticed I’m a fully signed-up and completely unapologetic Arrows and Traps fangirl. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been more than a little excited about their repertory season at the Gatehouse, which sees the same cast performing Twelfth Night and Othello on alternate evenings.

It’s hard to imagine two more different plays – one a comedy about romantic mix-ups and mischievous pranks; the other a dark story of betrayal, jealousy and murder. But in taking them on as a pair, the Arrows have put together a perfect showcase of everything that makes them so unique and fascinating to watch, while simultaneously demonstrating their impressive versatility. If you want to know what this company’s all about, don’t try and decide which show to see; just book for both.

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That said, the two productions can and do stand entirely independently of each other, in style, tone, even use of the space – so it seems only fair to review them as such. This review will focus on Twelfth Night – check out the other to read more about Othello.

Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots, Twelfth Night sees a young woman, Viola (Pippa Caddick), fall in love with her master, Orsino (Pearce Sampson) – but he’s in love with Olivia (Cornelia Baumann), who in turn has fallen for Viola, now disguised as a boy called Cesario. Oh, and then Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Alex Stevens) shows up, pursued by his friend Antonio (Spencer Lee Osborne), to cause further confusion…

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

Meanwhile, there’s a secondary plot involving a prank played on Olivia’s stuck-up steward Malvolio (Adam Elliott), by her maid Maria (Elle Banstead-Salim) and drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Tom Telford), with help from his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Grace) and the fool Feste (Lloyd Warbey). Get all that?

If it sounds a bit chaotic, that’s because it is – and this production even throws a couple of previously unexplored love triangles into the mix to complicate matters further. As a result, the play ends up as a study of unrequited love in all its forms, and brings a little more balance to the finale, which, as so often with Shakespeare’s comedies, can feel a bit too neat and tidy. Some of the characters will ultimately be satisfied, but just as many will leave disappointed, and if we’re left with a few loose ends – well, that’s the way life is sometimes.

Director Ross McGregor has assembled an impressive cast featuring several familiar Arrows faces. A larger than life story calls for similarly over the top performances, which include Elle Banstead-Salim’s over-excited and giggly Maria and David Grace’s lovably ridiculous Sir Andrew. Cornelia Baumann’s Olivia is rather more, ahem, erotically charged than we’re used to seeing, while Adam Elliott’s poker-faced turn as Malvolio brings the house down, particularly once he gets his yellow stockings out…

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

But it’s not all high comedy, and there are some beautifully understated moments too – most notably from Lloyd Warbey, whose sad clown Feste, so busy entertaining others that he’s unable to speak of his own sorrow, opens his heart to us instead through song. Pascal Magdinier’s arrangement of contemporary music fits much more naturally than you might expect within the Shakespearean text, and features the likes of The Police and The Proclaimers (yes, really – and it works).

I’ve seen some versions of Twelfth Night that take quite a dark turn, particularly in the treatment of Malvolio, so that we end up feeling somehow complicit in his downfall by laughing. That’s not the case here; though there are undoubtedly some more melancholy moments, the audience is never made to feel uncomfortable. Instead we can sit back, relax and watch love, laughter and music combine in an original and thoroughly entertaining production.


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… 😉