Topsy-turvy: Kate Kennedy and Kate O’Donnell, image via Jonathan Keenan

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jo Davies
20th April-20th May 2017

This review is adapted from a comment on the Manchester Theatre Awards site here.

Driftwood, a hail of sand, and furniture sinking disconcertingly into the stage as if it’s an ocean: everything is unmoored in Twelfth Night, including gender, identity and life itself. Faith Omole’s Viola is carried in corpse-like in a lifejacket, looking like another Mediterranean migrant in news footage, and the ululating Balkan  music woven throughout hints at this context too.

The music is great, from Kate Young’s folk fiddling to Joe Gravil’s show-stoppingly beautiful guitar number, underpinning the action and providing much-needed energy. It’s a shame the comedy doesn’t always sparkle as brightly as the soundtrack – Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Malvolio are pretty average. Mina Anwar’s very funny Maria, and the expressive Kate Kennedy as Olivia, bring much-needed verve and originality. Some wordier parts of the script are rushed over to make room for sight gags – perhaps judicious script editing would have helped with this. Having said that, the visual comedy is well-executed (especially the occasional play on Anwar and Kennedy’s height difference).

The central topsy-turvy, gender-switching love stories play out with an appropriate blend of incredulity, dramatic irony, and hopeless lovelorn loneliness. Kevin Harvey’s Merseyside-tinged Orsino is particularly convincing: he somehow prevents the character’s self-absorption from straying too far into toxic masculinity, so that we can believe in his happy ending with the gender-switching Viola.

It’s a nifty idea to make Sir Toby an ageing rocker and Malvolio a bike-riding hipster, though these up-to-date costumes clash confusingly with the britches and knee-socks worn by Cesario and Sebastian, making the twins look out of place in their own play. Evidently we’re adrift in time, as well as in a sea of gender confusion, and also (remember the driftwood) the actual sea.

Unfortunately, neither Kate O’Donnell’s Feste nor Omole’s Viola is pitched quite right – Omole seems a touch too intense, O’Donnell too relaxed. The publicised casting of an out trans woman as a male character seems like a half-hearted attempt at social commentary, made all the muddier when Feste dons a fake beard and lowers her voice to impersonate another character. It’s worth remembering that for all its fun with identity-switching, the play delights in putting everyone back in their socially prescribed boxes at the end. I think O’Donnell’s final song is supposed to leave us questioning this neat structure, making some point or other about gender identity, but it doesn’t quite work for me.