The audience are still finding their seats as the music starts. Is this a Shakespeare play, or have we slipped into the Cotton Club for a night of smoky jazz? The set is unmistakably a speakeasy bar, with a raised centre stage where the singers are starting to shine..
‘If music be the food of love, play on…’  The most famous of opening lines, from Duke Orsino.
Yup. Shakespeare. But as you may never have seen it before. Ten of the most talented young performers on the stage today are about to start their own completely unique and rather wonderful take on the comedy Twelfth Night. The music they all perform (there is no off-stage band or orchestra) fits the mood of the play perfectly. 
This production is great fun to watch, and the cast themselves look as though they are having a ball with this complex tale of romance, misunderstanding, misadventure and mischief. Their skill at investing many modern foibles and fashions into the Shakespeare text gives us some unmissable moments and gives new depths of ambiguity to well known lines from this favourite comedy.
Gender roles have been played around with in a play which already draws on the confusion of cross dressing deception. Lauren Redding, also the Musical Director, gives a wonderfully rumbustious and mischievous Sir Toby Belch cavorting and drinking her way through many a caper with her sidekick Aguecheek (Mike Slader) who looks like a skinny refugee from a Billy Bunter novel.
Twins Sebastian (Stuart Wilde) and Viola (Rebecca Lee) are shipwrecked and have lost touch, each believing the other drowned. Viola disguises herself as a man – Cesario – and offers herself in service to Duke Orsino (Jamie Satterthwaite), with whom she becomes besotted. He meanwhile uses Cesario as his envoy to profess his love to Olivia (Aruhan Galieva) who is grieving for her brother and father who have just died, leaving her a wealthy woman. She in turn falls for the messenger ‘boy’ Cesario. Into this love triangle come several sub-plots, including a wicked plan by Sir Toby Belch, Aguecheek and Olivia’s servant Maria (Victoria Blunt) to make Olivia’s steward Malvolio think that his mistress Olivia is in love with him. Malvolio is urged by  a secret letter to make his feelings plain to his boss Olivia while ‘cross-gartered with yellow stocking’. It is fair to say that in this production Malvolio take this instruction to heart, giving us one of the most outrageous and hilarious stage caricatures ever to grace  a Shakespearian stage. Great credit must go to the energetic and decidedly muscular Peter Dukes for giving us a new and unforgettably eye-popping Malvolio. Have your smelling salts handy if you are of a nervous disposition.
Stirring the mix along the way are Olivia’s fool Feste (Offue Okegbe) and servant Maria (Victoria Blunt) singing, dancing and pranking their way through the lovers and losers. Into this melee comes Viola’s twin Sebastian, and his devoted friend Antonia (Emma McDonald) – another gender change from the original which adds extra depth. Sebastian stumble upon Olivia who mistakes him for his sister masquerading as Cesario, and promptly marries him. 
Eventually all the confusions are addressed and the wrongs are righted – mostly – as the play comes to a joyous conclusion. Director Paul Hart squeezes every nuance from the text with every actor adding perfectly timed gesture and lively physical comedy, as well as each contributing to the music throughout, which is also composed by this talented cast. Rebecca Lee as Viola/Cesario steals our hearts from her first moments onstage as she draws us into her dilemma of being an envoy for love from the object of her own desire, making us yearn for her to win her heart’s desire.
I don’t recall laughing out loud so much as I did at this show for a long time. It is a brilliant production from a hugely capable young company. The same ten performers are also touring their version of Romeo and Juliet, so make sure that you make time to see both for Shakespeare as you have never seen before.
©Julian Swainson 2017




Romeo and Juliet, Wednesday 7 June at 7.30pm, Thursday 8 June at 2.30pm and 7.30pm, and Saturday 10 June at 7.30pm. Twelfth Night, Tuesday 6 June at 7.30pm, Friday 9 June at 7.30pm and Saturday 10 June at 7.30pm. Tickets £8-£26.50. Discounts for Friends, Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s, Schools and Groups. Captioned performance on Thurs 8 June at 2.30pm.
To book, log onto or call the box office on 01603 630000