Rose Playhouse, London – until 5 May 2019
OVO Theatre was responsible for my first visit to St Albans with last year’s Much Ado About Nothing in the grand surroundings of the Roman Theatre of Verulamium there. This year, my travel time may have been significantly cut down but once again there’s no less history in their venue choice as their musicalised production of Twelfth Night takes place in the archaeological wonder of Bankside’s Rose Playhouse.
And also once again, there’s an intriguing mismatch between said history and the setting for the reinterpreted play. Roman ruins formed the backdrop for a 50s American diner last time around; here, the darkness surrounding Tudor stone suggests endless ocean as we find ourselves on the SS Illyria in all the hedonistic excess of the roaring twenties. A bold move and one which has its moments in Adam Nichols’ production.
Trimmed down to a nifty 90 minutes or so and bolstered by a suite of swing-based covers of contemporary pop songs, there’s not much subtlety here as broad strokes are used to cover the story of music hall act ‘Viola and Sebastian The Dancing Twins’ as they are rescued from their own sinking cruise ship. But beauty can be found even in primary colours and there’s much to enjoy in the knockabout comedy (James Douglas’ nice-but-dim Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a particular treat) and some great music (Hannah Francis-Baker’s Feste is a real talent, that Katy Perry number should be front and centre in her cabaret set).
Naturally, some of the bold decisions didn’t quite work for me. In a play so forward-thinking when it comes to gender and a production that happily casts a female Malvolia, Feste and Toby Belch, it’s a bit disappointing that punches are pulled as Maria’s affections are transferred to Fabian in order to keep them heterosexual. And there’s a bit too much of a push to make pretty much the entire company that unlikable (in the vein of the Bright Young Things) in the final moments which feels a touch unbalanced.
That said, there’s something clever in how the last scene really does knocks everything off-kilter. Aguecheek getting to express his vengeance makes for a canny lineswap and how else would Malvolia voice her melancholy but through Radiohead – Faith Turner really sells this moment well. Throw in the additional grace note of the scales finally falling from Lucy Crick’s Viola’s eyes and there’s a real emotional punch to the ending. A Twelfth Night unafraid to be different then, for better or for worse.