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Twelfth Night review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘joyous and charming’

Kate Kennedy in Twelfth Night at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan Kate Kennedy in Twelfth Night at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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The rain it raineth very hard during the shipwreck opening of Jo Davies’ joyous Royal Exchange production. But there’s nothing wet about a show. It conjures up a sandy Illyrian coastline awash with erotic desire, gender concealment and identity confusion.

Yet when every character seems to be obsessively in love with someone else, it’s the final line that gives the play’s ambi-sexual orientation a reality check. Kate O’Donnell, surely the first transgender performer to play Feste as a trans-woman, signs off the “wind and the rain” ditty with the extremely poignant, “When I was a little boy”.

Apart from O’Donnell’s talent for making Feste’s foolery genuinely funny, after an evening of romping humour and romantic entanglements this is a terrific moment when the trans tingle factor really kicks in.

There’s a lovely glimpse of girl-meets-girl ambiguity too when Faith Omole’s Viola in male drag adds a laddish swagger to the line “I am the man” during her/his erotically charged first encounter with Olivia.

But the entire production exerts an irresistible topsy-turvy charm and the clear-speaking acting ensemble keep a level balance between the broadly comic, the seriously romantic and the tantalisingly homoerotic.

Kate Kennedy’s deliciously statuesque Olivia exudes sexual power over the androgynous Cesario and Anthony Calf is a poncey virtue-signalling Malvolio.

Alex Baranowski’s music isn’t just the food of love either, but drip-feeds the production’s life-blood, with fiddler Kate Young leading a band playing a mix of folksy melodies and moody off-beat sounds integrated within the action.

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Charming and joyous production that has a genuine feel for the play’s underlying gender issues