“Twelfth Night” by Shakespeare in the Squares

Jeremy Malies in central London (Notting Hill Gate)
15 June 2023

It will always be a cruel play in which Malvolio exits promising revenge and yet director Sioned Jones makes this version fun without being saccharine. And thankfully there is not so much as a hint of one of the staid original madrigals with which the actor playing Feste usually dies on their feet!


Richard Emerson as Malvolio.
Photo credit: James Millar.


The opening lines tell us that Orsino’s household is musical; but it’s jazz that runs throughout a seductive production with songs that slightly post-date what I took to be a logical WWI setting given that so many characters are in mourning.

Olivia (Carys McQueen) leads the cast on Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with the irony being that just about everybody is misbehaving whether it be forging your mistress’s handwriting (Maria), fortune-hunting (Aguecheek) or tormenting the imprisoned Malvolio, this being carried off by Marissa Landy as a flapper Feste who you suspect might just know more about Viola’s disguise than she lets on. McQueen is compelling as she marvels at the speed with which she has fallen for Orsino’s tomboyish messenger. “Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” At the conclusion she is a mixture of wonder, shock and joy as the man she thinks to be Cesario finally dispenses with logic and allows her to jump him.

The verse-speaking is excellent across the board with Lucy Ireland as Viola truly inhabiting the signature “Make me a willow cabin at your gate”. There’s a heady musk of sexual ambiguity amid the disguise and mistaken identity. I think I caught a few bars of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” which – given all the gender confusion and subterfuge – becomes questioning as well as plaintive. More Gershwin follows with “Someone To Watch Over Me” whose lyrics are poignant when you consider the plotline.


Lee Drage and Fred Thomas.
Photo credit: James Millar.


But I should have liked to have seen Cesario physically closer to Orsino (Toby Gordon) in order to push at the homo-erotic undertones that are much more apparent when Cesario is (almost) bewitched by Olivia. Some of the demands of the multi-roling are immense and Gordon switches from RP as Orsino to broad North Country as Belch without ever faltering between the two.

When Cesario tells us of an imagined reticent sister who was too shy to speak of her love, I came over all moist and husky. Perhaps the pick from the strong cast is Fred Thomas as Sebastian and also as a dippy but self-assured Aguecheek. The duel suffers since even an actor of Thomas’s talents can’t fight himself! But instead, we get Landy giving Ireland some comical advice on how to throw a jab while Thomas indulges in mock Zen meditation. Later, Thomas is delicious while doing a dumb show as he upstages Sir Toby with some lip-syncing.

Everybody bonds and even if it has been over only a few days since the shipwreck, Lee Drage (Antonio) hints at a real back story with Thomas in his Sebastian persona. The piratical Drage also gets droll, rumbling tones out of the trombone. This company are impressive and energetic multi-instrumentalists even to the extent of lugging a bass saxophone to the venue. Slow to take my seat, I sensed that the brass instruments had made sounds like sirens to suggest the shipwreck. I take this to be yet another witty touch from musical director Annemarie Thomas.


Priscille Grace, Carys McQueen and Lee Drage.
Photo credit: James Millar.


The whole square becomes part of this to the point of Malvolio (Richard Emerson) approaching the audience to show how he has been gulled by the handwriting trick. Pompous and preening, he can reel us in like a nightclub comic but moments later suggest the uncomfortable edge of real pain and loneliness.

Costume supervisor Colette Robinson-Collcutt renders Ireland suitably androgynous in her jodhpurs and aviator’s helmet. Thomas of course gets an identical kit as Sebastian, and as Aguecheek he has a blazer and boater that suggest he has dropped in from nearby Lord’s. The twins truly appear to have made division of themselves, and Jones’s direction takes risks as it allows the pair to come within a split second of stumbling across each other.

A little jaded and feeling I have been around the block in terms of outdoor Shakespeare, I accepted an invitation to see this late in the day on a whim. Twisting the Show Boat number only slightly – yes, we get a switch from Gershwin to Jerome Kern: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dis”. The production has given me a shot in the arm. In an era when gender and identity continue to become increasingly fluid, this play speaks to us more than ever. What a swell Illyria this is.