Britain's favourite clever clogs Stephen Fry makes a brave return to the stage alongside a genuine genius, Mark Rylance, in this starrier revival of the all-male 'Twelfth Night' first seen at Shakespeare's Globe in 2002. The critics won't sharpen their knives on Fry: last time he ventured out in a West End play 17 years ago he went AWOL, fleeing to Belgium after a negative review.
Clumsily skipping around in baggy Elizabethan breeches, he's as intelligent, erudite, wry and affable a presence as you' d expect. Which is what makes him so colossally miscast as Malvolio, a pompous, puritan hate-figure with pervy fantasies and bizarre wardrobe choices.
Rylance, in dead white makeup and big black skirts, is weirdly wonderful as the lovelorn countess Olivia. He skims around the stage like an Elizabethan geisha on castors, doing elaborate six-point turns in an attempt to escape grim reality – represented by Fry's Malvolio, whose deluded seduction attempt resembles a spaniel humping a sofa. Paul Chahidi also goes down a treat as Olivia's lady-in-waiting, bringing a filthy sense of humour to a less-than-LOL production.
Cross-dressing drives the comedy onwards, with Olivia and the other local landowner, Liam Brennan's resonant Orsino, falling for shipwrecked twins, Sebastian and Viola (Samuel Barnett and Johnny Flynn). But this crude, lively staging probably worked much better in the open-air Globe than it does in the West End stalls.
Shakespeare's melancholy comedy about the pains of love, the death of youth, and the dolorous joy of booze is one of his finest. But this production, with its too amiable hate-figure and almost all the characters on the wrong side of 50, skews it too far in the direction of comfortable panto. Rylance's performance and Claire van Kampen's lovely musical settings are the only elements which touch your heart.