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London Theatre Reviews

John Pfumojena, Anita Joy-Uwajeh and company/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

MESSAGE OF LOVE

By SAM MARLOWE

Emma Rice's production is a glittery and joyous crowd-pleaser.

In a London summer that has been marked by political turbulence, tragedy and terror attacks, a message of love could hardly be more welcome. And if her efforts to win our hearts haven’t always been successful with her critics, that’s what Emma Rice, the outgoing artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, aims to deliver. This may be
her last – and only her second – summer season at the theatre, from which she will step down next year – but her approach is as distinctive and defiantly freewheeling as ever. And her Twelfth Night, while not rich in nuance and almost entirely devoid of the play’s penetrating sense of grief and melancholy, is a joyous crowd-pleaser. It’s bright, brash and glittery, full of swagger, sex and song. And if some will miss Shakespeare’s profundity, it creates an uplifting, festive atmosphere that has the Globe’s up-for-it audience roaring its approval.

With a flourish of sparkling 70s disco, it’s all aboard the Love Boat, or as it’s called here, the SS Unity. It’s Studio 54 meets the Village People’s "In The Navy." Sailors boogie to Sister Sledge’s "We Are Family." The master of ceremonies is the cabaret performer Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste, majestic, extravagantly bearded and fabulously frocked, a soulful, bass-voiced diva who resembles the love child of Rick James and Diana Ross. Sebastian (John Pfumojena) and Antonio (Pieter Lawman) are cast adrift in a dinghy that glides, almost magically, through the sea of groundlings. Once back on dry land, we’re suddenly in Scotland, where sailors’ hornpipes transmute into a Highland Fling and Joshua Lacey is a muscular-legged poseur in a kilt.

Anita Joy-Uwajeh is a sparky Viola. Annette McLaughlin is as lusty as she is patrician as Olivia. And both Carly Bawden’s flirty maid Maria and Marc Antolin’s skinny, foppish, bannister-sliding Sir Andrew Aguecheek are terrific comic value. The king of clowns at this beguiling feast of fools, however, is Katy Owen as Malvolio, a punctilious little Welsh killjoy almost prancing with glee at every opportunity to spoil anyone’s fun. Once persuaded of Olivia’s passion for him, Owen is driven almost berserk by priapic lust, enthusiastically humping the theatre’s pillars and cheerfully togging up, for the cross-gartered humiliation, in canary-yellow golfing togs. There’s not nearly enough bite to the torments this Malvolio is forced to endure. Even when Owen, pockets full of stones, wanders to the water’s edge, the threat of suicidal unhappiness doesn’t seem serious. And there’s no denying that if Rice’s production captures the delirium of desire, it almost entirely neglects the despair and the ache. But it’s still so easy to lose your heart to it. While it’s hardly the most complex of interpretations, there are, as every human being ever born knows, times when all you need is love.