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Twelfth Night review at Guildford Castle Gardens – ‘charming open-air Shakespeare’

Alex Scott Fairley, Emma Fenney, and Isaac Stanmore in - Twelfth Night. Photo: Steve Porter
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Though it opens on a suitably melancholy note, with a shivering Viola staggering ashore, and a brooding Duke listening to love songs on a battered radio, Guildford Shakespeare Company’s take on Twelfth Night isn’t aiming for any great depth. Adapted and directed with cheerful energy by Charlotte Conquest, this breezy outdoor production focuses on the play’s whimsy rather than the capriciousness and cruelty of its love-addled characters.

Francesca Baker heads the cast as an innocent and intelligent Viola, bounding into awkward adventures and extracting herself with good-natured gentleness. James Burton is a perfectly unpleasant Malvolio, just enough of a preening, priggish caricature to take the edge off the merciless ridicule he endures.

Company co-founder Matt Pinches provides fine comic support throughout as inveterate drunkard Toby Belch, maintaining the wobbling tone and uneven gait of the perpetually inebriated while plotting with Emma Fenney’s sly and sharp-witted servant Maria. Meanwhile, Rosalind Blessed’s vividly-drawn Feste relishes every bout of barbed wordplay, pausing occasionally to belt out a handful of jazzy, evocative tunes from composer Peter Lole.

Designer Neil Irish opts for the same bright and pleasant 1950s seaside town aesthetic that the company often adopts for its summer shows, setting the action on a picturesque bandstand and a sturdy pier backed by a thicket of masts. As twilight settles in during the second act, a dreamy and delicate lighting design takes over, dousing the stage in rich washes of violet and warm gold, gently underlining the plot’s dreamlike absurdity.

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Charming if unchallenging open-air performance of Shakespeare’s frantic farce.