Twelfth Night, Open Air Theatre, 2024
Photo: Rich LakosAnna Francolini (Olivia)
  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • Recommended


Twelfth Night

4 out of 5 stars

Highly enjoyable take on the Shakespeare classic, set in a seaside nightclub that nobody ever leaves


Time Out says

Given a beautiful warm May night and the twinkling surroundings of the Open Air Theatre, I’d probably look fairly kindly on a wilfully abrasive take on ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, let alone a crowd-pleasing ‘Twelfth Night’.

I’m not sure Owen Horsley’s lengthy production finds any incredible new depths in Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. But it is, nonetheless, lovely stuff.

The conceit here is that all the action takes place inside a hulking seaside nightclub named Olivia’s. Exactly where it’s supposed to be – a fading British coastal town, an expat corner of the Med – is never made clear. It’s also basically irrelevant: like Hotel California you can check in but seemingly not leave; once people enter the club they have no life outside it. In the opening sequence, we see that Raphael Bushay’s lovelorn Orsino spends his days and nights drinking in the establishment, while everyone else is either a punter or an employee. Or Olivia herself: in the show’s most entertaining turn, Anna Francolini stars as a Miss Havisham-alike, clad in elaborate veils of mourning, tottering about with her late brother’s ashes.

There’s the very real sense that these people’s lives might never have changed at all if not for the abrupt arrival of Evelyn Miller’s willowy Viola, whose decision to disguise herself as Cesario – a man – sparks a fire in both Orsino and Olivia’s loins that finally shakes them from their inertia.

As ever much of the focus lies with the various eccentric hangers on that inhabit the club: Michael Matus’s Toby Belch is a drag entertainer; Matthew Spencer’s Andrew Aguecheek I was a bit confused about (he flitted between business suit and drag) but was also funny; Richard Cant’s fastidious Malvolio has a distinct air of Mr Humphries from ‘Are You Being Served?’. There is definitely a pleasing sitcom-like quality to their various scrapes, a sense that the antics they get up to in ‘Twelfth Night’ - basically an elaborate prank on Malvolio - are but a snapshot of their ludicrous lives.

With added songs it runs to three hours, which is a lot for a comedy. Some of the minor characters get eye-catching treatments that don’t end up meshing that well with their actual story arcs. The play gestures at a genderqueer transgressiveness it doesn’t really follow through on. But it has a strong second half: Francolini gets funnier the more she has to do, and there’s a genuine sexiness to the late night scenes between Orsino and Cesario that transcends the innate preposterousness of the former not clocking the latter was a woman. 

Moreover, nitpicking feels less relevant on a balmy late spring night in London’s most enchanting theatre. Founded almost a century ago as a Shakespeare-only venue, the OAT hasn’t staged a full length version of one of his works in years. But this return to the Bard is about as quintessential as it gets. Play on!


£15-£65. Runs 3hr
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