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.


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.

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Interview: Arrows & Traps, Twelfth Night and Othello

Over the past three years, Arrows & Traps have become well known for their unique adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works – most recently Macbeth and Anna Karenina. But the company’s latest project is their most ambitious to date, as they prepare to perform Twelfth Night and Othello in repertory at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse this November.


The decision to take on two plays simultaneously stemmed from director Ross McGregor’s interest in exploring the duality in Shakespeare’s work. “Shakespeare’s comedies are not just simply throwaway funny things that end in orgiastic shotgun weddings. His tragedies are not just gloomy tear-stained stab fests. Iago, the antagonist in Othello, is darkly funny whilst he does unspeakable things to innocent people, and the comic treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night descends into dark cruelty and manipulation. The blending of light and dark seemed to be interesting to explore.

“But it was also a practical decision. If I was asking audiences to come back and see a second show, I wanted to provide a varied menu. Twelfth Night is an unrelenting carnival fun fair of laughter, love and lyricism – and it’s also a full blown musical – whereas Othello is a psychological thriller, set in a hyper-sexualised, racist and cut-throat world of politics and militia. So I thought people would enjoy seeing the same ten people navigate the different worlds and present two sides of the same coin: the birth and demise of love.”

Of course, performing two plays at once brings with it new challenges: “I’m currently running a sweepstake on which of the cast comes onstage in the wrong costume and says the wrong opening line,” says Ross. “It does impose more time constraints on us; we have to work faster, move on quicker, correct and evaluate with more brevity, there’s less room to devise and experiment. Choices are still being made, options are still being explored, but there is now a much more pressing sense of the need for producing work each day and drawing a line under it.

“The line-learning element doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue; I’ve structured the castings so that each actor has a main role in one of the shows, and a supporting part in the other, so no-one is drowning under a tidal wave of iambic pentameter. We use the same set for both, so I suppose that might challenge us to create different stage pictures across the two shows, but with the material being so different, and the characters each actor plays being so contrasting, I haven’t noticed any repetition. In fact, there’s some nice echoes in there across the shows, for instance the bed that Pearce Sampson (Orsino) woos Pippa Caddick (Viola) in is the same one where he (now as Iago) contrives her death (as Desdemona). So I’m enjoying that aspect of it.”

Anna Karenina

Unusually, the cast for the two plays features only two new faces: “We usually have more, but this project seemed to represent the culmination of the last three years, so I wanted to show that in the casting. We have David Grace, playing the lusciously adorable and insipid Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, and then the lovesick puppet Rodorigo in Othello, an altogether darker and more tragic role. I’ve been a fan of David for about two years, so it’s an honour to finally get to work with him. He brings an energy and dedication to his work, he’s one of the most specific actors I’ve ever heard in terms of his delivery and responses to the text; he’s flourishing as an Arrow and it’s a pleasure to support.

“Then we have Lloyd Warbey playing Feste in Twelfth Night – the lady’s fool and her “corrupter of words”, and Lodovico in Othello. You may be familiar with Lloyd from his work on Art Attack on the Disney Channel, and he’s worked all over the country, so it’s a privilege to have him involved. For Feste, you need a showman, an entertainer and a comedian, and yet there’s a melancholic sadness to him; he’s broken, lonely and jaded, and it’s great to see Lloyd switch in and out, hear him spin the language with a cheeky grin on his face.

“The other eight members of the cast are my core members, the people I would trust with any script, and the people that without them there would be no Arrows & Traps. There’s no greater gift for a director than having a cast like this. They’re a pleasure to see every day, and the amount of effort and energy they put into both shows is humbling.”

As always, the Arrows are keen to delve into the text and find something fresh and original: “I think the main element of Twelfth Night that feels new to me is the darker and melancholic elements. I’ve seen quite a lot of productions of the play that focus on the comedy but ignore the other elements. Shakespeare first staged Twelfth Night on the anniversary of the baptism of his own twin children, one of whom had drowned several years before. I think this was deliberate. On one of the days of the year where he perhaps thought of his son the most, Shakespeare put on a play where two twins find each other again after both nearly drowning. There’s a wish-fulfilment, a consoling father fantasy in that which is heartbreakingly sad. Twelfth Night to me is a dreamscape where your wildest dreams can come true, where gender and sexuality are fluid and transient, where chaos flies with majestic abandon.

“In terms of Othello, I wanted to examine what it means to be a Moor in modern times. So often, we take the word “Moor” to simply refer to someone’s race, to be black or North African, but it originally referred to their faith – that they were Muslim. We’re staging this in November, during the month where Donald Trump may or may not become leader of the most powerful nation in the world – a man who’s built a campaign on fear-mongering against Muslims, a man who campaigns for power on the promise that he will exclude, interrogate and remove people of a particular religion. Othello seems timely to me in that regard.

“I also wanted especially to show Desdemona in a better light. So often she’s portrayed as this weak, blonde willowy girl who meekly accepts her own murder, but to me she’s incredibly strong-willed and independent. She goes against her father for the man she loves, she rejects prejudice and society’s expectations of her and is unwilling to let it oppress or minimise her. She’s seduced by stories of battle and violence, tales of the unexpected and grotesque, which to me shows that this is an adventurous, outspoken, and vivacious young woman, and I wanted to show a Desdemona like that, which is something I’d never seen before.”


And now for the big question – to see just one play, or both? “I’ve directed the two shows to be able to stand on their own two feet independently of each other, but there’s something exciting about seeing both,” Ross suggests. “There are also five days in the run where you can see both in the same day, which would be something of a marathon, but since the Gatehouse is above a pub, you can have dinner in-between, have a drink and make a day of it.

“But if you could only see one of them, you have a choice between a clown-filled chaotic musical of love and passion and confusion, or a darkly thrilling study of the breakdown of a relationship in a violent and brutal society. They’re two hours each, so we’re not talking about a four-hour snore fest, but two fast-paced, visceral rollercoasters. Of course, the producer in me would like to add that if you book for both you get £2 off your second ticket…”

Book now for Twelfth Night and Othello from 1st-19th November.

Review: Handbagged at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Not having really lived through the Thatcher years, I’ve never been able to fully appreciate why’s there such an intensity of emotion – positive or negative – among the older generation each time her name comes up. In Handbagged, Moira Buffini attempts to shed some light for the “young people”, by pitting The Iron Lady against another iconic British woman – Queen Elizabeth.

Beginning at the newly elected prime minister’s first audience with the Queen in 1979, the play imagines what might have taken place at their weekly meetings over the next eleven years. It’s a political satire, charting key events including the Falklands, the Brighton hotel bombing and the Miners’ Strike, but ultimately focusing on the human relationship between the two women. The Queen’s baffled by Thatcher’s coldness and lack of humour, while the Prime Minister fails to understand her monarch’s love of the outdoors, and fears Her Majesty may secretly be a socialist. The stage is set for an epic clash of personalities, and that’s exactly what we get in the Tower Theatre’s production.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

An easily recognisable older and younger version of each leader – playfully referred to in the programme as Q and T, Liz and Mags respectively – look back on events over tea and cake, bickering about what did and didn’t happen, while two increasingly dissatisfied (and disruptive) actors fill in all the other parts in the story, from Denis Thatcher to Nancy Reagan. Directed by Martin Mulgrew, Helen McCormack and Alison Liney’s Queen is warm and personable, with an occasional mischievous streak, and an urgent desire to be ‘useful’ to her country and people. In contrast, Anne Connell and Julie Arrowsmith both nail Margaret Thatcher’s icy facade, practised speech patterns and frozen facial expression – but not to such an extent that we can fail to see the vulnerability beneath, particularly towards the end of the play.

While the conversations between prime minister and monarch are often loaded with quiet sarcasm, Ian Recordon and Jonathan Wober provide much of the laugh out loud humour as they scramble to fill in all the other roles, adopting an impressive array of costumes and accents along the way and occasionally falling out over who gets the best parts. The fact that they’re hired actors in someone else’s narrative is openly acknowledged from the start, becoming increasingly significant as the play goes on, and they struggle to keep quiet about the conveniently gaping omissions.

Photo credit: Ruth Anthony

For those of us born in the early 80s or later, Handbagged certainly fills in a few gaps in terms of British history and politics. Yet it never becomes dry or boring, and at times even feels surprisingly current; the description of how divided the country became over Thatcher, for instance, is very reminiscent of present tensions over Brexit. The play also helps explain some of the strong public feeling that still lingers today. The script quotes several of Margaret Thatcher’s most well-known and controversial statements, and even hearing them spoken by an actor, you can’t fail to pick up on the ruthlessness behind them (for good or evil, depending on your politics).

Don’t be fooled by the description of Handbagged as an amateur production – the Tower Theatre Company have done a fantastic job yet again on an enlightening, intelligent and, above all, thoroughly entertaining play.

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Review: Brontë at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Start a conversation about English literature with just about anyone, and it probably won’t be too long before you arrive at the Brontë sisters. Best known as the authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte, Emily and Anne are part of our national heritage, and yet most of us know far more about the lives of their characters than we do about the authors themselves. Polly Teale’s 2005 play Brontë aims to correct the balance, allowing us a glimpse into the remote rural life of the three sisters, and the complex family relationships that inspired the classic creations we know so well.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

And it turns out there’s more than enough material here for a story all of its own. The personal and professional rivalry between Charlotte and Emily (in keeping with history, poor Anne doesn’t really get much of a look-in, and is relegated to the role of peacekeeper); the declining fortunes and eventual disgrace of their brother Branwell; the struggle to succeed as writers in a man’s world, and the sisters’ very different motivations for writing in the first place… There’s a lot to cover, and the play does so in a series of short scenes, jumping backwards and forwards in time from childhood to adulthood, and returning to somewhere in between. Each of these scenes is introduced by a change of lighting (effectively managed by Adam Taylor) and a burst of recorded string music, wherein lies my only real complaint about Tower Theatre’s production – after countless scene changes, the music does start to grate just a little bit.

That small gripe aside, the production, directed by Simona Hughes, is of the highest quality. The cast give compelling performances, in particular Joanna Nevin as the sensitive, publicity-shy Emily, and Tania Haq, who becomes more and more dishevelled as she brings to life two iconic characters – Cathy from Wuthering Heights and Bertha from Jane Eyre. The two male members of the cast also take on multiple roles with skill, and it’s here we begin to see the parallels between fiction and reality woven into Teale’s script, as the girls’ father (Martin South), whose love and approval Charlotte craves, morphs into Mr Rochester and her adored tutor Constantin Héger, while the increasingly abusive Branwell (Paul Willcocks) turns before our eyes into Heathcliff and the drunkard Arthur Huntingdon.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko
Photo credit: Robert Piwko

What’s most impressive about the production, though, is the way it recreates the isolation of the Brontës’ home on the moors. With the exception of the local curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, we never see anyone from outside the family enter the house… and nor do we leave it until very late in the play (and then only briefly). Colin Guthrie’s sound design brings the countryside to life around us, as rain pours, birds cry and wind blows. And as the sisters repeat the same tasks, day in day out – folding laundry, baking bread and caring for their elderly father, all whilst knowing that the world expects nothing more of them because they’re only women – we get a sense of the stifling atmosphere that led them to find their escape through writing.

Brontë is a fascinating true life story that puts a human face on three literary legends, and makes you want to go back and read all the novels again to look for clues you might have missed the first time. Part documentary, part drama, it touches on gender issues, family relationships and the human need to be known and admired, to leave our mark on the world even long after we’re gone.

Much like the Brontë sisters’ famous novels, it’s not a particularly cheerful tale – but then as we all know, that doesn’t necessarily prevent a story from becoming a classic.

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… 😉