An Orton Compendium: A Genius Like Us (A Portrait of Joe Orton)

In memory of the playwright Joe Orton, whose career ended in violent death 50 years ago, the BFI is showing a season of films of and about his work. Top of my to-see list was this compendium, which comprises a 1982 BBC documentary alongside clips showcasing some of the work referenced in the documentary – What the Butler Saw, which is also being shown as part of the season, with a Q&A by Lahr, Leonie Orton and Ken Cranham – and an excellent clip of Malcolm McDowell and Beryl Reid playing a scene from Entertaining Mr Sloane which made me wish I’d made it to see the 2009 production starring Mat Horne.

The main documentary works on several levels. First and foremost, it is an exploration of Orton, his life and death, and the people who knew him. Most of the screen time goes to Orton’s sister Leonie, biographer John Lahr and agent Peggy Ramsey as well as close friend Kenneth Williams. As a result, there’s little in the film that can’t be learnt by reading John Lahr’s  biography Prick Up Your Ears. And yet, it’s the people who barely knew Orton that are most fascinating: the Islington librarian who can barely control his laughter as he describes Orton and Halliwell’s desecration of public property. The jolly publishers who betray every scrap of class prejudice they must have felt on meeting Orton for the first time in just a few minutes of chat. You get a sense of what it must have felt like to interact with Orton, and also what it must have felt like for him, attempting to enter circles presided over by the prejudiced. No wonder he had to cultivate unease and rebellion to get ahead.

The film is also a tantalising taste of documentaries past – the sort of thing I just about remember watching growing up. No slick editing or grinding repetition of recaps and soundbites, that blight today’s TV ‘documentaries’. Each subject is given space and time; they hesitate; they reflect; sometimes their words trail off and you learn as much about them as about their late lamented friend. It’s impossible, for example, not to like Orton and Halliwell’s neighbours, the Salvonis, and their simple acceptance of the two men as a couple – and one that would stick together no matter what. As Mr Salvoni repeats this sentiment about them sticking together, it’s as if he’s grasping for something else, perhaps something about love, that perhaps he can’t quite bring himself to say in this context. And yet, you know he gets it. Orton’s sister’s responses range in tone from cheeky wit when she is summing up her parents (“My father would have loved a greenhouse…but…he never aspired to that.”) to heartbreaking when she talks about the unhappiness of her childhood, or the gap her brother’s death left in her life – at that point, 15 years after it happened.

 

The Tempest, Barbican Theatre

7/10

The RSC’s latest production of The Tempest is causing quite a stir at the moment – even among those who don’t usually take an interest in the theatre. The reason is that this production incorporates ambitious uses of projection mapping and motion capture technology. The set – the wrecked hull of a ship – is augmented by vast, moving projections that transform it from rocking ship to turbulent undersea, to enchanted forest.

The effect is both captivating and frustrating. The audio visuals work best when they are bringing the sea and the island to life. I have never seen a more spectacular shipwreck scene, with a lifelike rocking of the ship and vivid images of bodies tumbling through the water are projected onto a cylinder onstage. Digital projection allows the landscape to shift from underwater to forest and back again – at times it was even like a magical underwater forest – everything you expect from a sorcerer’s island. Thanks to these projections, Prospero’s recreation of Ariel’s years in the pine tree becomes a scene of physical and emotional torture, in which we see Ariel once again imprisoned in its boughs – it’s also the only moment when this Prospero appears to be truly cruel. And yet, sometimes the effects feel overdone – Ariel’s hounds of hell were too much for me, the wedding masque was overlong and the digitally projected dresses on Juno & Friends were overkill.

Far more striking than the projections is the fact that Mark Quartley’s Ariel wears a mocap suit throughout, allowing his movements to be animated and enlarged into spirit manifestations. This works when he is enchanting Ferdinand in the guise of a sea nymph, and when he is presiding over the waters with an eagle’s wings. It works less so well when his spirit form is being projected onto a black flag flying above the stage – the suspension of disbelief, for me, was lost. Also, in spite of all the technology, Quartley’s Ariel never manages to be sufficiently ethereal. This might be down to the sinewy suit he wears, or the fact that his movements were boldly athletic rather than quick and lithe, but the overall effect was good but not great.

And this is where the production really falls down for me: the performances are solid but not great. I’ve seen two outstanding productions of The Tempest in the past decade – a previous RSC take starring Patrick Stewart and Dominic Dromgoole’s production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in which Tim McMullan and Fisayo Akinade were outstanding and Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox made my sides hurt from laughing.

Simon Russell Beale’s approach to performing Shakespeare has always thrilled me – the verse trips off his tongue as though the words had just formed in his head, making every scene feel like reality rather than drama. And yet, when it comes to Prospero, this ability becomes a weakness: Prospero is meant to be larger than life, especially in the early stages of the play, where he doesn’t have much stage time.

For me, at least, Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic characters. After all, the tempest is raging within him as well as around the island. SRB’s natural delivery means that he never manages to convey the very dramatic emotions – rage, obsession – that drive Prospero in the early stages of the play. He is more like Leonato preparing industriously for the arrival of his distinguished guests than a man hellbent on revenge. The crucial moment – and change of heart – that occurs when Ariel shames his master by saying that were he human he would pity the prisoners, loses its impact if Propsero has never been that angry to begin with.

Ultimately, it’s a production that has a lot of good things about it – but only the technology seems really fresh. Everything else, I felt I had seen before. Joe Shire – understudying Joe Dixon – seemed to relish the role of Caliban, but I found the production’s interpretation of Caliban too overtly troll-like for my taste. Shire really took to the role, though, and added his own nuance to Caliban’s pain and frustration – the final scene where he finally walks upright and strides into his cell with his Prospero’s broken staff won me over entirely. Simon Trinder’s Trinculo seemed to have walked out of an episode of The League of Gentleman and he and James Hayes as Stephano never really achieved the energy and chemistry I have seen in other productions. You leave not exactly disappointed, but with a sense of exciting possibilities left unfulfilled.

 

 

 

 

 

I Loved Lucy, Arts Theatre

I haven’t given this show a star rating, because it’s an odd one to review: a truly unspectacular show in itself, but with an outstanding central performance.

There’s a particular species of Hollywood or theatrical biography in which a well-loved female star is befriended by a much younger man, they become constant companions, and a claustrophobic, generally codependent relationship forms. The star is usually in the last decade or so of their life and the young man is invariably a fan struggling to make his way as a writer. The biographies are generally a combination of anecdotes, eccentricities. Start and loyal subject always seem to fall out when the star’s health really declines, often as the result of some pushing by family members concerned about undue influence and protective of The Will.

I Loved Lucy is based on one such biography. Patrick, our narrator, is a lifelong Lucille Ball fan who is lucky enough to be distantly related by marriage to her second husband, Gary Morton, which leads to him developing a friendship with the lady herself. Patrick plays backgammon, visits her in Hollywood, acts as her PA when she is New York, accompanies her to movies, and watches helplessly as she stumbles through her final TV series.

None of this is interesting. What is interesting is how perfectly Sandra Dickinson captures Ball – her voice, her energy, her biting wit. When Patrick starts tediously – and endlessly – recounting the plots of I Love Lucy episodes, Dickinson doesn’t roll her eyes. She stares at him, as if waiting for him to get over his bout of verbal diarrhoea. It’s little touches like this that make her performance so captivating- and worth watching. There’s also a healthy dose of vulnerability: mixed in with the big, impressive tales about her Hollywood friends is disappointment about the failure of her first marriage and the compromise of her second. Genuine or fabricated, Dickinson plays the conflict well.

The show drags somewhat. There are only so many Lucy anecdotes one can sit through before the novelty palls. The timeline is inconsistent both with history and within the  play itself. Patrick is not an enjoyable character or a particularly engaging narrator. The best he has to recommend him is that unlike many similar biographers he always had a steady job, career and life of his own away from his celebrity friend.

The Arts Theatre seems to specialise in this kind of biodrama – in the past it has put on shows about Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – and the performances are always well-attended so there must be a market for them. See it if you love Ball, or Dickinson, or both. Otherwise, see something else.

Common, Olivier Theatre

3/10

I’m afraid to say, I found Common uncommonly bad, fell asleep at one point and left at the interval feeling somewhat perplexed as the play appeared to have ended, but not finished. I realise not every first act ends with a cliffhanger, but they should, as a general rule, leave the audience wanting to know what happens next. That this one didn’t is the least of its problems.

What I could extract from the nonsense before me was that Mary is a foundling who gets slung out on her ear after having an affair with her adoptive sister, goes to London, makes some money whoring, gets knocked up and comes back to her country roots to take her long lost love Laura off to Boston to bring up baby. Along the way she spars with Laura’s brother, King, meets a boy with an allegedly possessed crow on his arm and does a lot of protesting about the enclosure laws that are about to come into force. The dialogue is awful. DC Moore has decided to draw comparisons between 19th Century peasants and sink estate youths – at least that’s the only plausible explanation I can dream up for writing a play in language that jumbles together complex archaic constructions with a touch of the Wurzels. The resulting effect is something akin to white noise punctuated with the word “fuck” at various intervals. Moore’s only strategy for raising the occasional laugh is to use phrases like “pissy pipe” and “furry hole”.

Lest we mistake this for a genuine play of the period, Moore makes certain to indicate that its influences are scrupulously contemporary. In a scene reminiscent of the coming-of-age ritual of many a Corrie/Emmerdale/Eastenders teenager, Mary abruptly announces “I’m pregnant!” mid-argument. People are constantly digging graves, and no-one watching really cares who died (or is about to). About 30 minutes in, I took a nap. The nightmare was that it was all still going when I awoke.

In fairness to Amy Downham (Mary), she was only standing in for Ann-Marie Duff, but her performance felt more like that of someone reading from a script they’ve read once or twice than one who believes in the character or story being portrayed. Perhaps she’s read the notices which, I understand, are no good, and given up on the play like the rest of us. Cush Jumbo, as Laura, does some acting and I must admit hers were the only lines and scenes I managed to remember after making my escape.

There are some positives. This play has an interval, allowing the imprudent ticket purchaser to escape after 90 minutes. I liked the set. The dusky skyline splattered with crows in flight is very striking, and I liked to focus on the distant, glowing horizon with its roofs and spires whenever the boredom got too much to bear. I was able to work out what sort of view I’ll get when I go to see Follies in September, and ponder what that set might be like. And I liked the costumes: Mary’s red riding outfit was very striking, and the Woodland Folk looked delightfully sinister.

But of course, when the play is so poor that all your joy comes from rustic rabbit heads, you know the production is in trouble.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre

7/10

A transfer from the NT, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is the perfect Friday night show: ballsy, bawdy, full of fine performances and uplifting songs. Do go and see it – but don’t go  expecting much of a plot.

Given that the action revolves around wayward schoolgirls and choirs, comparisons with St Trinian’s  and Pitch Perfect are unavoidable. It’s true the show bears all the well-established hallmarks of a British caper movie, including a script that is high on fast-paced laughs and low on real action. We meet six convent schoolgirls from Oban, they tell us about their lives and do some naughty things, there’s a brief attempt at a plot as they go to Edinburgh for the day to attend a choir competition. There’s then a section where we peek behind the masks to see that one of the young hellraisers is dying, one is pregnant, one is in love with her best friend, and so forth. It’s a valuable teaching moment in Tory Britain: watching this, the inhabitants of Tunbridge Wells can learn that even people with ASBOs can experience personal growth.

Mixed in with all of this are some fantastic renditions of some rather everyday songs. For me, they evoked the peculiarity of being a teenager through the sort of middle-of-the-road music that seems to surround you when growing up. It’s that period where you start taking ownership of the music your parents play, still bound by their tastes as you reject your standards, getting ready to be your own person. I was a 15 year-old UB40 fan (thanks, dad). Our ladies love ELO.

So far, so what? Incredibly, though its premise is slight – this show lives or dies on its humour – the end result is an incredible ride. This is principally because of the dazzling wit of the script and outstanding performances by Dawn Sievewright, Frances Mayli McCann and Kirsty MacLaren in particular. The actors grab their roles with both hands and make the audience love them, managing to counteract some of the more cloying moments at the end with the sheer force of their charisma.

Best of all, it’s an entirely female-fuelled show, with occasional male roles being taken on by the leads, allowing us to see these characters only as the girls see them and – for once! – for all the men to be filtered through a female gaze.

 

The Mentor, Vaudeville Theatre

5/10

I was excited to see this play. I have been longing to see F. Murray Abraham on stage for some years and what better opportunity than an intellectual play about the nature of art, writing and working in the Arts?

Well, a lot of things, really. The main problem is that while The Mentor boasts an excellent cast, it’s an insipid piece of work that doesn’t provide them with the kind of matter they can get their teeth into. Whether this is a fault of the writer (Daniel Kehlmann) or the translator (Christopher Hampton), or the famous fatal misalliance between British and German humour, the result is a polite B+ essay of a play which doesn’t give the cast room to shine.

Kehlmann draws some rather commonplace not-quite-conclusions about what it means to be a writer, to review art, to support art, and so forth. There are some neat little jokes about working in the Arts sector – all worth a polite titter. But the play trickles along like one of the less good chapters in an Alain de Botton book: mildly amusing, faintly familiar, but ultimately no that interesting.

The performances range from decent to very good. FMA doesn’t disappoint, but his role is basically a watered down – and slightly more charming – version of some of the terrifying roles he’s played on screen. It’s a role he could do in his sleep, and he stays on the professional side of phoning it in. Naturally, this is a disappointment, knowing that given better material, he could have done so much more. Jonathan Cullen brings some delightfully fussy details to Erwin, the arts administrator. None of this, however, is enough to really lift the play, and when Martin flings his Macbook (and play) into the lake, one can’t help wondering what trick of fate prevented Kehlmann from doing the same. The play ends, the cast smile, the audience applauds politely, and marvels at the tastelessness of the lone voice that bothers to shout “Bravo!”

Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre

9/10

When I was a child, one of my aunts often used to sit me down to watch films starring Hayley Mills. If you grew up in a world where The Parent Trap starred Lindsay Lohan, then I should explain here that Hayley Mills was the daughter of a British film star, who became a child star in the 1960s. For me, one of the defining features of these films, most of which were made by Disney, was that they starred a distinctly British child surrounded by an American family. I was frustrated by the lack of backstory around this, especially in the film That Darn Cat! which even featured an older sister who was American, so I couldn’t even plausibly convince myself that the character’s parents had spent a chunk of time in the UK and recently return to the US.

What this digression has to do with the Almeida production of Hamlet that’s just transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, is the fact that Andrew Scott is the lone player with an Irish accent, while everyone else gives their best (and in some cases approximate) RSC delivery. This ends up being both a distraction and a revelation, because it’s hard not to wonder why he is different when the others are so much the same.

Scott’s delivery is what makes this production. Suddenly, lines which are usually soberly declaimed bubble forth like real, live speech. You get the impression that this Hamlet is thinking and feeling his words, rather than reading them off the backs of his eyes. The rhythms of Scott’s speech are a perfect match for Hamlet’s soliloquies. He makes the ravings of a madman make sense – and delivers them with a knowing humour that draws loud cackles from the audience. The fact that he feels real and the rest of the cast are Doing Shakespeare reinforces the fact that there might, as Polonius suggests, be method in his madness. Hamlet, despite losing his wits, is the only one who sees the world as it really is – a powerful message in the current political climate.

The only scene I didn’t enjoy as much was the “get thee to a nunnery” exchange with Ophelia, which is usually my favourite part of the play. The spirited delivery of the rest of the text muted its impact: and I am not going to complain.

It’s a modern Hamlet – the action takes place in 21st Century Denmark, some of the costumes could have been bought in Muji, and both CCTV and press footage are incorporated into the action in a way that seems entirely natural and appropriate. Whereas many other productions finagle modern elements into old plays to make awkward  parallels, this Hamlet fully – and comfortably – inhabits the modern world.

The direction is superb, and helps to expand some of the characters whose stage presence is too brief in the text. We see them going about their lives behind a screen while the main action takes place, giving us a sense of who they are even before they first speak. The same screen is also a subtle way of dealing with the distinctly unmodern streak of supernatural in the play – the dead inhabit the world beyond the screen.

As ever, I must make a brief pause in all this to hammer on about the male gaze and its ugly interruption of what is a stellar production. Why, should Ophelia (both sane and mad) feverishly wrap her legs around her brother Laertes and hump him as though she is Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually? I admire the form of Jessica Brown Findlay as much as the next person with a pulse, but really, I felt this was merely an excuse to get a young actor into an unnecessarily sexual pose.

I’m known for seriously disliking Hamlet. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s my least favourite Shakespearean tragedy. It’s always felt rather self indulgent to me – both in the way it is written and the way it is performed. I loathe its tendency to make even the finest of actors generally catching their breath a little before launching into the famous speeches. I’ve seen it four times since the age of 14, and managed to feel unmoved even when Michael Sheen brandished Yorick’s skull mere inches from my face. I can’t hep but lose my will half through the second act every time.

Except this time. This production not only has me wanting to purchase another ticket, but itching to revisit the text – something I haven’t bothered to do for at least 15 years. I think that warrants a Bravo all round.

Salome, Olivier Theatre

 

2/10

I have only myself to blame for the fact that I ended up sitting through Salome last night. I visited the NT website three times and decided it was not for me, before thinking “Oh, go on then…” For this, I am a fool.

Salome, in case the reference escapes you, is a Biblical tale. Salome, the favoured niece and stepdaughter of King Herod, causes the execution of John the Baptist by requesting his head on a platter as a reward for some particularly fine dancing. Author and director Yaël Farber‎ has taken this as a cue to produce something that is part political allegory, part interpretive dance, part performance art and all nonsense.

We are introduced to two Salomes. The narrator, old Salome, has been imprisoned under the temple. Young Salome doesn’t speak for most of the play, she just watches. Old Salome is at great pains for us to know that she wasn’t just a princess and the cause of John the Baptist’s ruin, she was a revolutionary in an occupied territory, and her story has been suppressed. John the Baptist wears nothing but some very tight underwear and speaks only in Hebrew, while the rest of the cast speak English. The subtitles for his lines are sometimes obscured by a giant ladder, which, depending on your interpretation, is either headed down to the dungeons or up to heaven. Sometimes it disappears and becomes a table, which is all well and good at a small theatre with a tight budget, but at the National it’s just indulgent. Jesus is a man in a loincloth who does interpretive dance and every now and then utters garbled pronouncements – a bit like the sort of ‘preachers’ you see outside Aldi on a Sunday afternoon.

In Farber’s interpretation, Salome is a revolutionary. Sexually abused by her uncle (Paul Chahidi – the high point of the show, more of him, please) she feels an affinity with the outsider John, and finds comfort in his teachings. John baptises her as one of his disciples and her decision to dance and to ask Herod for his head are all part of her plan to ensure he is martyred and remembered forever instead of kept forcibly alive in obscurity by Herod’s guards.

Farber seems to be trying to give a female perspective to the male-dominated stories from the Bible. And yet, there is a heavy dose of male gaze about this production. John baptises all his disciples fully clothed, except for Salome, who must first do a striptease and then submit to a sensual bath. From this point onwards, she frolics in an airy, transparent shift, frequently revealing her breasts. Breasts are lovely, but this seems a little unnecessary, to say the least. And somewhat unlikely behaviour for a character who gets raped about five times in 90 minutes. Her famous ‘dance’ consists mainly of rubbing her nipples and gurning. It feels like titillation, rather than appropriate nudity, and I certainly wouldn’t offer her anything unto half of all my kingdom for it.

The political allegory is strong in this one. The word occupation comes up a lot, often spoken a bit louder than the rest of the dialogue for the benefit of the dim ones at the back. In case there is any lingering doubt whatsoever with regard to the parallel being drawn here, Farber ensures that at one point the Hebrew soldiers arrive on stage armed with guns, adopt poses familiar from news footage, and talk about occupation and possession of land. HAVE YOU GOT IT YET?

The show is littered with the ridiculous. During one of the sexual abuse scenes, Herod gropes Salome while telling her that “Your saliva is the special sauce of my life” – possibly the worst line I have ever heard uttered in the Olivier and something that even the most negligent porn director would probably strike from a low-budget script.

Salome’s big draw is meant to be the stage direction, but I found it a bit crowded. There’s a lot going on. Any players who aren’t centre stage get involved in the interpretive dance, fanny about with drapes, or stand on a carousel and spin around the action. Every now and then they all gather around a table and mimic The Last Supper. It feels heavy handed and worthy – like those Eurovision songs that tell of the beauty and independence of some minor beleaguered state in an attempt to distract their more fortunate neighbours from the joys of glitter and lurex.

Fifteen minutes in, I’d had enough of heavily declaimed poetry, floating tablecloths and interpretive dance and was longing for the interval and blessed escape. Except that like most theatrical abominations these days, Salome has not interval. Of course not. Because then its victims might leave before the ordeal was quite done. I was trapped in the Olivier for a further 90 minutes. I knew how Salome felt in her dungeon, I can tell you.

It’s possible, of course, that this was a wonderful performance and I am merely more of an Old Testament Philistine than a New Testament revolutionary. The woman to my right wept when it really got going, and I think she was genuinely moved rather than bitterly regretful. However, take my experience as a warning, and do not buy a ticket to this show unless you can get an aisle seat.

Review: Judy! Arts Theatre, Covent Garden

6/10

Judy! is the latest in the procession of those shows about Judy Garland that pop up every now and then, the most notable among them being Over the Rainbow which had most Garland fans wetting themselves with excitement. This is not that show.

The basic premise  – you can’t call it a plot – around which Judy! operates is that the audience is watching Garland at three stages of her career: the action weaves in and out of the lives of Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose), Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) and CBS Judy (Helen Sheals).

Sheals is magnificent – by far the best thing in the show – and captures all the fascinating, almost dangerous vulnerability that made Garland’s television performances so compelling. She quips her way through the recording of her TV series, fighting over its format, and scaring off producers while grappling with unscrupulous agents and Sidney Luft’s debts. Sheals has clearly both studied her subject meticulously and made the character and performance her own, allowing her to really enjoy giving us ‘her’ Garland. Her Judy is world-weary, but still sassy. The Judy captured by the likes of Rufus Wainwright and watched by millions of fans on YouTube. I was enthralled.

Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose) has yet to make her big break, is being made miserable by her mother and the studio for not being enough like Shirley Temple and only has an older, sympathetic gay colleague on whose shoulder to cry. Foreshadowing, for those unfamiliar with Garland lore, her alleged penchant for marrying gay husbands. Penrose’s physical performance can feel a bit stiff and overdone at times, but she captures Garland’s awkward, self-conscious “ugly duckling” phase beautifully, with jerky, overly theatrical movements. Her segment has the closest thing to a plot, as we see her transition from an outsider trying to get a studio contract, through relentless touring and finally into The Girl Who Will Be Dorothy.

By comparison, Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) feels like the weak link of the trio. This may be because hers is the least easily defined Judy. Sheals and Penrose seem to really know who they’re playing – and know her inside out. Wollaston seems uncertain, possibly because her character has nothing much to define her as Judy except the songs. In fairness to her, this is mostly a failure of the script. Palace Judy’s moments on stage are tedious and rambling, with nothing much happening except for emotional outbursts and declarations of love for Sid Luft. Wollaston never seems quite comfortable in the role, as if aware that her material isn’t the best. It doesn’t help that she is considerably taller than the other two Judys on stage, effectively breaking the magic of the show’s central conceit.

Fortunately for all concerned, the audience is there for neither plot nor script nor acting. It matters little that we learn nothing new or unexpected about Judy Garland from this show, or that in places the caricature (domineering stage mother! Gay father! Gay husbands!) is almost painful to watch. This show is all about the music. And on that score (!) the show delivers in buckets.

Supporting cast members drift from centre stage at the end of their scenes to pick up an instrument and join the band. Each Judy has her big numbers, with the fact that Garland reinterpreted many of her most famous songs numerous times throughout her career incorporated as the Judys join each other on stage to harmonise on favourites like Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart. Favourites like The Trolley Song are balanced with lesser-known gems and this is where the stars of the show really shine. Penrose and Sheals excel at bringing to life the energy of Garland’s early and late performances, leaving those in the audience born too late longing for the experience of seeing the real thing. It’s in the final part of the show that Wollaston proves her worth – and explains her casting – by giving an energising finale performance in top hat and tails. It’s hard not to be thrilled while watching these songs sung by a trio giving their best Judy Garland. Every time the music starts, the audience is mesmerised, not least by the fantasy of experiencing a fraction of what it would have been like to see Judy herself.  The dramatic action, on the other hand, instantly breaks the spell. I left feeling lifted by the music, but wishing the script had worked harder to match the musical exuberance. Not to mention wondering where I’d hidden my well-worn CD of Judy’s Carnegie Hall performance.

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

8/10

Twelfth Night is one of those plays I’ve always found difficult to enjoy. Now that our culture has all but abandoned the topsy turvy twelfth night tradition, Sir Toby’s japes are the only element of the plot that seem to have any shred of probability to them. Then there’s the fact that directors can never really reconcile their desire to have a “pretty” female lead with audience’s need to have someone who looks even halfway convincing in drag (the 1990s film adaptation is a prime example of this, with Imogen Stubbs feeling rather too much like Blackadder’s Bob for comfort). The japes take an uncomfortably dark turn and the denouement is wildly hasty, with significant characters disappearing abruptly, their absence explained in throwaway lines. And into all of this, you have to insert regular dances and songs. Like I said, it’s a difficult play.

The current production at Shakespeare’s Globe navigates these difficulties with aplomb. I went to a midnight matinee feeling somewhat worried about staying awake after failing to stop at home for an early evening nap. I needn’t have worried. It isn’t humanly possible to sleep through a show like this.

The action starts on a cruise ship, vibrant with disco music and 70s fashions. Sebastian and Viola are both pretty in flares, with close cut afro hairstyles. Gender-bending is the order of the day. Many of the players – notably Katy Owen (last season’s spectacular Puck) as Malvolio and Nandi Bhebhe as Fabian in heels – play opposite gender parts, with the focus on androgyny rather than drag.  This provides a far more subtle and interesting commentary on our perceptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ than Viola’s assumption of boy’s attire.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh strikes a perfect note as Viola, alternating lash-beating timidity and boyish awkwardness. She modifies her body language to signify the change, making the disguise believable with no need for comedy facial hair.

The cast is spectacular – so much so that it is hard to single out anyone in particular. Each of them adds distinct touches that smooth out the play’s loose ends and ragged edges.Annette McLaughlin’s comic timing makes Olivia’s approach to her love life somewhat less ridiculous. Joshua Lacey’s Orsino is long-haired, leather-jacketed and oversexed, a womaniser clearly fickle enough to switch his affections from Olivia to Viola once the central ruse is up.  Elegant drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat dazzles in sequins and gives good voice as Feste and brings welcome sass and sparkle to ‘Sister’ Topaz. Carly Bawden is pert and saucy in her maid’s outfit as Maria – pining less for Sir Toby and taking more of a leading part in the action than in some other productions – egging the others on and leading their mischief. Marc Antolin – potentially the best thing in the show – is uproariously camp as a lisping Sir Andrew Aguecheek with a wardrobe that deserves its own place on the cast list. Tony Jayawardena’s kilted Sir Toby Belch for once stays on the right side of the grotesque: a drunk, for certain, but it’s clear why Maria is so taken with him. Katy Owen takes sheer delight in playing Malvolio, buzzing around the stage like a tiny, uptight mosquito, who bursts out in turn with repressed pride, rage, and love.

Music and dance enliven the parts where the plot starts to drag, and movement affords characters such as Antonio and Sebastian more charisma than they otherwise might have had. Even at the end, the cast is buzzing – and the audience are too. It’s an enlivening and uplifting show – and an excellent take on one of Shakespeare’s more unusual plays.