12 Nights

John Topliff
Manchester Shakespeare Company
Three Minute Theatre, Manchester

For it’s hugely enjoyable pre-Christmas seasonal offering the Three Minute Theatre has confected a lovely romp loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

In place of Illyria, we have the post-United Kingdom which, after a civil war and a UKIP victory, is immigrant-free. Into this troubled land fall the identical Balkan twins Sebastian and Viola, here actually played by different gendered actors just to add to the later confusion.

They are on the run from the border police and head north to escape but get separated and that’s when the fun starts. Sebastian has to disguise himself as a woman, Sabrina, to be the companion for well-to-do Horsina Pilton who is in love with the film star Oliver de Tabloid. Pretty soon Oliver falls in love with Sebastian thinking him a woman and rejects Horsina’s advances.

Oliver’s very camp PA is Malcolm, who is clearly based on Malvolio. Malcolm is in love with Oliver and much fun is had at his expense, which is very true to the Shakespearean original although the gay subtext is not. Also in Oliver’s household are Andrea who lusts after Oliver and his aunty Tia Maria.

This is all an inventive conflation of Orsino, Olivia and Maria from Twelfth Night. Misunderstandings and misdentifications abound sexuality and gender is deconstructed and there is a lot of bawdy and coarse comedy. This feels quite in keeping with the spirit of the Shakespeare original.

The talented cast were not disheartened by the rather sparse audience. Perhaps patrons were put off by the awful weather.

Charlie Colquhoun is fine as the conceited and self-obsessed wannabe film star Oliver de Tabloids. He has just the right amount of smarm balanced with his charm. Louise Wilson makes the most of her dual roles as the mischievous Tia Maria and the outlaw Antonia who befriends Olivia. She is suitably feisty and manages to convince as different characters.

Sophie Toland excels as the violent and unstable socialite—the American Andrea—and the po-faced twin Viola. Her Balkan-style accent is appropriate given that is actually where Illyria was situated. She and Louise engage in a very funny umbrella fight at one point.

Tony Charnock gives a very broad but consistant performance as the pompous control freak Malcolm Fabrese. His bright, outrageous costumes including the statutory Malvolio yellow add to the largeness of his characterisation. Some of the earthy comments by him and about him, such as his misconstruing of the letters YMCA as Young Malcolm Cute Arse and references to his passage, perhaps teeter on the wilder shores of the land of the earthy.

Undoubted stand-outs from the cast are Sophie Anne Ellicot as Horsina Pilton and Daniel Brotherton as Sebastian. Sophie lights up the stage whenever she appears with her brilliant and very polished movement and comic technique.

Sophie also sings two of the three fine songs in the piece. The first is about the difficulties of finding a man and then later the problems when the one you love actually is enamoured of another. Both are very well delivered and particularly tuneful. Credit to Gina T Frost.

Daniel has a lovely way of appearing to underplay and throw away lines which gets the appropriate laugh. This reviewer’s favourite of these is when Oliver is making an unwanted advance and he says that he is unavailable for several quite complex reasons. These are of course that he’s a man pretending to be a woman and also in love with someone entirely different.

The two-hour run time feels the right length and the pace is good throughout. There could perhaps be more actual Shakespeare quoted than there is. Some of the lines which do appear work very well, such as the "some are born" great sequence for Malcolm / Malvolio and Sebastian’s poetic way of describing his love.

The self-referential jokes about it even being Shakespeare for all they know are also very satisfying. There is a lovely setting of Twelfth Night’s song "Hey Ho the Wind and the Rain", which is lead by Malcolm who is then joined by the others. The exploration of different sexualities works quite well although most fun is had at the Malcolm gay male character’s expense.

All is pretty well resolved by the end with the twins reunited, various characters coupling up and order once again restored. This is a fun night out which deserves a bigger audience than it received at this particular performance. It’s cleverly written by John Topliff and tautly directed by Gina T Frost. If this production be the food of love give me excess of it.

Reviewer: Andrew Edwards