Captures the rapturous gaiety of the original: Globe's Twelfth Night reviewed

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

28 August 2021

9:00 AM

2:22 — A Ghost Story

Noël Coward Theatre, until 16 October

Twelfth Night

Globe Theatre, until 30 October

The new Lily Allen vehicle opens in a spruced-up terrace in the East End. Allen plays a self-satisfied yuppie, Jenny, whose cynical husband has invited two ghastly friends over for a bitchy booze-up. At first sight this looks like a Hampstead comedy from the 1970s but it’s a horror story, and it has a huge black hole at its core.

A classic horror yarn should be driven by a single, powerful premise. In Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, a failing playwright has to bump off a talented rival to restore his fortunes. In Psycho, a bland motel is terrorised by a deranged and violent loner. Even Shakespeare dipped into the horror genre. In Hamlet, a vacillating prince is ordered to commit murder by his father’s ghost.

But this show lacks a compelling story-line and the writer, Danny Robins, makes up for it by adding sackloads of fear-inducing effects. It’s like sitting through a graduation piece by a sound engineer. Every scene starts with a piercing scream that almost makes your fillings fall out. And Jenny’s terraced house is over-burdened with freaky extras. A poltergeist stalks the rooms upstairs, opening and shutting windows. A baby-monitor in the nursery carries the wails of an infant into the kitchen. Foxes snarl and shriek in the neighbour’s garden. The peals of a summer storm rumble across the soundtrack.

But even that isn’t enough. The characters are clumsy and excitable, and they keep dropping glasses or hurling things around the room. Every few minutes, a new sound effect smashes across your consciousness and makes you jump out of your seat. It never stops. Bang, crump, bawl, rumble, screech, howl, yelp, crash. The audience reacts to each of these shocks with a gasp of surprise and a collective chuckle of relief. It feels contrived and predictable.

The characterisation is similarly clunky. Kind-hearted Jenny wants to believe in the ghost but her sceptical husband (Hadley Fraser, not bad) argues against the paranormal and claims everything has a rational explanation. Their Cockney dinner guest, Ben, is a scaffolder by trade and happens to be a psychic as well. That’s handy. The clairvoyant builder sets up an Ouija board and bingo! The ghost responds to the call. The kitchen furniture is sent skittering across the room.

After this comes a surprise twist which seems unrelated to the scary hoodoo that preceded it. In fact, it’s worryingly similar to the plot of a classic Hollywood movie. Undoubtedly this show is a commercial hit and the crowd seems to get a kick out of the shared experience of synthetic terror. As for Lily Allen, she comes through with the goods. She’s intelligent, charismatic and easy on the eye. Leading lady material? Absolutely. But she needs to tackle a proper dramatic role rather than acting as chief facilitator at a crash-bang-wallop festival. The National should find her something by Coward or Rattigan.

Sean Holmes’s Twelfth Night is the usual mash-up of influences and styles. The setting is partly modern and partly historic but the designer, Jean Chan, has an excellent eye and knows how to create visual effects that serve the story. The twins, Sebastian and Olivia, are dressed in matching emerald breeches and their wigs are similar so it’s understandable that everybody muddles them up. At the south-east corner of the stage is a wrecked truck which doubles as a hiding place and as a stepladder to the playing area. Neat idea. One of the guards wears the natty black togs of an LAPD cop, complete with a white helmet and aviator shades. Why? Because the costume is great to look at. No other reason is needed.

Malvolio is played by a slim youngster, Sophie Russell, who sports satin dance clothes and a rockabilly quiff. Hardly the right costume for a meddlesome puritan but she does exceptionally well and gets lots of applause as she traces the character’s journey from bossyboots to megalomaniac to gullible lover to tragic prisoner.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (George Fouracres and Nadine Higgin) use their comedy routines to elicit fun from the crowd rather than imposing weird ideas on the material. They indulge in comic dances which seem negligible but they contribute to the frivolous, carefree atmosphere of the show. The neglected character of Orsino (Bryan Dick) has been thought out carefully. He’s an angry sex stud who prowls the stage in cowboy boots and a tasselled velvet jacket like a bassist recently expelled from a supergroup. His smouldering air of resentment make it natural for Michelle Terry (Olivia) to fall in love with him.

Terry, who happens to be the Globe’s director, has a magical comic presence and she finds all kinds of graceful humour in the part. One can imagine Shakespeare nodding appreciatively at this Olivia. There have been a few howlers at the Globe recently but this show captures the rapturous gaiety of the original.

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