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Twelfth Night review at Young Vic, London – ‘Kwame Kwei-Armah’s exuberant welcome’

Scene from Twelfth Night at Young Vic, London. Photo: Johan Persson

Come on in. Kwame Kwei-Armah kicks off his artistic directorship of the Young Vic with a condensed but generous and welcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy.

Staged earlier this year at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, this exuberant musical staging, co-directed by the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis, has been given a London makeover and is performed with a large community cast of Lambeth and Southwark residents.

Designer Robert Jones has relocated Illyria to the Portobello Road. The houses are painted in rainbow shades, the flags of the world are strung over the stage, and there’s a carnival atmosphere in the air. The Notting Hill setting allows for some (very) light commentary on status and social roles, but this production’s chief concern is fun.

Though the play has been winnowed down to 90 minutes and a lot of the verse has been dispensed with, most of the plot remains. Viola (Gabrielle Brooks, charismatic and strong of voice) finds herself washed up on unfamiliar shores, so she dresses like her brother Sebastian, who she believes has drowned, to channel some of his strength. The minute she dons his suit and specs, she finds herself falling for Rupert Young’s love-struck Orsino, while Natalie Dew’s grieving Olivia develops a massive pash for her, or rather for Cesario, Viola’s male alter ego.

Shaina Taub’s songs do the bulk of the narrative legwork, shifting from pop to disco to all-out London knees-up. At their best they unpack the characters’ backstories and motivations. The most effective number sees Viola wrestling with the idea that she needs to don a costume, to dress like her brother, in order to become visible and access her power. Disguise, she sings, is a “wicked blessing”.

Melissa Allan’s Feste has a fine voice, but it’s Gerard Carey’s Malvolio, pompous yet pitiable, who makes the biggest impression. He plays the role like a cross between the dad from Mary Poppins and Niles Crane. He sports a silk dressing gown, rides around on a Segway for no discernible reason and dreams of being “Count Malvolio”. He milks maximum laughter from every scene.

While textual and sexual complexity get tossed on the rocks along with emotional nuance, there’s little in the way of digging into gender identity, and some of the secondary plot strands have been all but obliterated – the relationship between Sebastian and Antonio is, disappointingly, made to feel like a bit of a joke – it sort of doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter much. This is a big, bright and lively staging that exhorts its audience to walk in the shoes and look through the eyes of others.

It is accessible and energetic, endearing and enjoyable – theatre that extends a welcome to the community in which it is based and to the wider world.

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Kwame Kwei-Armah launches his artistic directorship of the Young Vic with a entertaining musical adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy