New Wimbledon Theatre, London SW19
Opened 12 October, 2005

Many were surprised when Matthew Kelly, best known as a television presenter, won an Olivier Award for Best Actor for his 2003 performance as Lennie in Of Mice And Men; few, though, could fault the verdict. The role of the pompous steward Malvolio is a little closer to Kelly's usual register, but that makes it more of a challenge to rein in his natural impulses and allow only carefully rationed doses of camp. Kelly succeeds so completely in striking the required balance that, amid a cast which also includes the talents of Hilton McRae and Christopher Benjamin, his performance is one of the best things in Patrick Mason's touring revival of Twelfth Night.

Where Mason's production is good, it is very good. In editing the text slightly for comprehensibility (although replacing Shakespeare's "twain" with modern "two" seems a bit excessive), he also takes the opportunity to conflate the role of Feste the jester with that of Fabian, a servant who quite unnecessarily joins the crew of mischief-makers out of the blue around halfway through. McRae may be the finest Feste I have seen: he neither overdoes nor throws away the bits of scripted fooling, and makes him a more naturally sardonic figure with motives of his own, yet (unlike most productions now) avoids going too far into the supposed shadows of Shakespeare's comedies. Honeysuckle Weeks strains a little with Viola's grief in her opening scene, but once she dons her masculine disguise she makes a plausible and appealing "Cesario" in terms both of boyish manner and an unexpected degree of physical androgyny. Thank heavens, too, that the impulse is resisted to go for any kind of drag costume when Malvolio is tricked into appearing "in yellow stockings... cross-garter'd": a loud golfing outfit serves perfectly well.

However, Mason seems to have had a number of sizeable blind spots. Benjamin is an excellent actor, and his performance as Sir Toby Belch is solid, but it's exactly what he would have turned in without any direction. Most cripplingly, Mike Britton's set of a grey, domed portico stifles the play's exuberance, defeating the best efforts of Kelly, McRae, Weeks et al. and making the evening too often feel as pale and monochrome as it looks.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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