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Review: Twelfth Night at Shakespeare North Playhouse ****

Not Too Tame positions itself as ‘great night out specialists’ with high-octane storytelling at the heart of everything it does.

Audiences who saw the company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare North two years ago will have enjoyed a taste of its irrepressible (and accessible) ‘gig theatre’ approach to the Bard.

Now Not Too Tame is back in the Cockpit Theatre, this time taking on what director Jimmy Fairhurst describes as Shakespeare’s most musical play in a co-production with the Prescot venue and which certainly has plenty of chutzpah.

The energetic company of actor-musos utilises the close confines of the vertical theatre space to forment an immersive atmosphere for Shakespeare’s convoluted tale of love, loss and (two of his favourite comedy devices) gender swapping and mistaken identities – and one which nods to how audiences would have experienced it 300 years ago.

Set - nominally - against the backdrop of the music industry in an indeterminate sort-of now, Orsino (Reuben Johnson, hotfoot from The Legend of Ned Ludd at the Liverpool Everyman) and Olivia (Purvi Parmar) are both portrayed as solo stars with ‘courts’ thronged with minders and hangers on.

Into this world, courtesy of a catastrophic shipwreck, comes Viola (Georgia Frost) who – thinly disguised as a guitar-wielding boy and mourning her ‘lost’ twin Sebastian (a melodic voiced Tom Sturgess) – instantly becomes embroiled in their intertwined and increasingly chaotic lives.

Above: Tom Sturgess as Sebastian and Georgia Frost as Viola. Top: Les Dennis as Malvolio. Photos by Patch Dolan.

While Orsino’s domain is decidedly more relaxed and laissez faire, Olivia’s, where its star is similarly in mourning for her dead sibling, is ruled over by Les Dennis’s tightly laced Malvolio.

Fairhurst explains he approached Dennis to play the role because of the Liverpool comedian and actor’s ability for pathos alongside his comedy timing.

While Dennis – making his Shakespearean debut – delivers a solid enough performance as the pettifogging steward/manager, it's the bleakness he brings to his character in the second half, when Malvolio is left crushed after being cruelly gaslit into grotesque capering foolishness, which stands out.

His tormentors meanwhile together form an entertaining comedy engine room at the centre of the action.

Jack Brown, Johnson (moonlighting from his musical dukedom) and Kate James click nicely together as Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria respectively, with Brown’s wild, roistering, (although far too) sweary Sir Toby and Johnson as the gormless Sir Andrew an enjoyably watchable double act.

Above: Jack Brown as Sir Toby Belch. Photo by Patch Dolan.

Around and about them, Louise Haggerty channels a ringmaster vibe as Feste the clown who gets the party started and shepherds the playhouse’s (willing) audience along on the ride.

It’s Feste in particular, although not exclusively, who riffs cheerfully around the edges of Shakespeare’s original text.

There’s a fine line that needs to be trodden when you decide to play around with a classic, and while the heart of Twelfth Night is generally respected, there are times when the freewheeling additions and modern anachronisms threaten to overshadow and unbalance the Bard’s original - superior - verse and prose.

Additionally, some judicious tightening of the many musical numbers (a mixture of covers and original music by Standin’ Man’s Dean Fairhurst) would help tackle the production’s burgeoning running time.

Saying all that, together Not too Tame and Shakespeare North have created a undoubtedly crowd-pleasing Twelfth Night which is delivered with genuine warmth and not a little theatrical swagger.


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