Review: Twelfth Night (Liverpool Everyman)

The opening of the Everyman (Photo: Steve Aland)

The opening of the Everyman (Photo: Steve Aland)

Yes Mrs Lincoln, but what did you think of the play? Most people going to see Twelfth Night in the coming weeks will be looking forward not just to the performance but also to finally seeing what the new Everyman looks like. So to start off here’s a quick review of the theatre itself…

The good news is that there are sensitive re-creations of much-loved parts of the old Everyman, as well as positive new additions. The main auditorium is very reminiscent of the old one, with tiered seating arranged around three sides of the floor-level stage, so the audience look down on, and feel very close to, the action. And judging by the number of spectators sitting with glasses in their hands, the Everyman’s appealing informality has not been lost. There is though a definite sense of more space, with a very high ceiling and an extra level of seating. Similarly, the basement bistro is essentially a bigger version of the old one, and looks likely to prove just as popular. Back upstairs, one definite improvement is that two bright, spacious bars replace the old rather bleakly functional bar area. The bad news for some might be that the old building (which wasn’t actually all that old) didn’t appear to have a huge amount wrong with it, and its successor has cost an awful lot of money. But the new Everyman’s here now, it’s a great venue and it would be churlish not to welcome its arrival in the city.

And so to the play. In some ways Twelfth Night might seem a surprisingly conservative choice for the new Everyman’s first production, given the theatre’s strong association with radical contemporary drama. But two of the most memorable productions of recent years have been Pete Postlethwaite’s King Lear and David Morrisey’s Macbeth, and it’s perhaps appropriate that a major British theatre should reopen with a work by the country’s greatest playwright.

Luke Jerdy and Jodie McNee as the identical twins

Luke Jerdy and Jodie McNee as the identical twins

Gemma  Bodinetz (the theatre’s Artistic Director and the director of Twelfth Night) has also said that the play’s comedy has a subversive, anarchic edge very much in keeping with the spirit of the Everyman (and of Liverpool). It’s a play in which genders, identities and intentions are repeatedly confused and misinterpreted. When identical twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked off the island of Illyria, each makes it to shore believing the other to have drowned. Viola disguises herself as a man and becomes a gentleman servant to Orsino, who finds himself strangely drawn to his new companion, who for her part duly falls in love with him. Orsino believes himself to be in love with Olivia, a noblewoman who rebuffs his advances but likes the look of his messenger, the disguised Viola. A further layer of complication is a farcical sub-plot, in which Olivia’s drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch and his companions trick Olivia’s repressed, puritanical steward Malvolio into believing that she harbours a secret love for him.

Nicholas Woodeson as Malvolio

Nicholas Woodeson as Malvolio

Another reason Bodinetz has given for her choice is that the play is an ensemble piece, with plenty of important parts.The cast sees the return of some familiar faces from the Everyman’s past, who are joined by numerous well-known Liverpool actors. Matthew Kelly and Nicholas Woodeson were both members of a celebrated 1974 Everyman company. Kelly as Toby Belch has the bushy beard if not the ample girth traditionally associated with the role, compensating for the latter by using his tall, gangly frame to good comedic effect. Woodeson’s Malvolio is a straitlaced bureaucrat, whose finest moment comes in the final scene, when his dignified condemnation of the humiliation he has suffered at the hands of the other characters reduces them (and the audience) to guilty silence.

Matthew Kelly and Pauline Daniels

Matthew Kelly and Pauline Daniels

Among the local actors, Pauline Daniels is especially entertaining as Olivia’s servant Maria, played as a cross between Hylda Baker and Coronation Street’s Betty Turpin. Paul Duckworth’s Feste (Olivia’s Fool) is a wisecracking Scouse transvestite, who adopts a more serious tone when performing the play’s songs. These are given interesting contemporary arrangements, and could easily pass as the work of a Sixties singer-songwriter. Fabian – one of Sir Toby’s associates – is played by Alan Stocks (one of the city’s strongest actors), who spends much of the play’s first half comatose in a chair, occasionally erupting (rather like Jack in Father Ted) into brief, splenetic life. Adam Keast (a stalwart of the Everyman’s annual rock’n’roll pantos) is frequently hilarious as the upper class twit Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Matthew Kelly, Paul Duckworth and Adam Keast

Matthew Kelly, Paul Duckworth and Adam Keast

The main female parts are played by actors less familiar to Liverpool theatregoers. Jodie McNee is an excellent, strong-willed Viola, while Natalie Dew’s impulsive, emotional Olivia elicited a warm, sympathetic response from the audience.

The opening moments of the play are marked by two magical special effects, which at such an early stage in the play’s run it’s probably best not to reveal. They’re complemented at the end by a riotous effects-laden curtain call, which brought the audience to its feet. In between, there’s plenty of knockabout, physical comedy (occasionally a little heavy-handed), and the play’s darker elements rarely surface. But given the joyous, celebratory mood in the theatre even before the performance started, the decision to build on this and take the audience’s enjoyment to new heights was very understandable.

Twelfth Night continues at the Everyman theatre until 5 April.

Twelfth Night photos ©Stephen Vaughan