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Twelfth Night

One of Shakespeare’s most loved and oft-played comedies, Twelfth Night tells the tale of twins lost at sea (Viola and Sebastian), the fallout from the resultant shipwreck, mistaken identities, unrequited love and not a little mischief-making and chaos before order is restored.

Maskers Theatre Company have developed a reputation for high quality outdoor productions – and for good reason! After years performing their annual summer outdoor show in the lavish grounds of first Mottisfont National Trust then Hamptworth Lodge, they have found a new location back in Southampton in the beautiful setting of Townhill Park House (The Gregg School), a natural raised performance area, plenty of space for pre-show picnics and, on this occasion, the accompanying 80s music establishing the setting and creating an excellent ambience from the moment you arrive.

After a slightly hesitant start, where some of the audience took a while to realise that the background music had segued into the actual play itself, and some of the dialogue was difficult to catch (either because of strong accents affecting the lyrical flow of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter or volume affecting clarity), the players were soon into the swing of things and the production didn’t look back!

Some actors seem born to play Shakespearean roles, some to play comedic roles – and then there are those who seem born to play both. Adam Taussik (Sir Toby Belch), Sarah-Jayne Wareham (Maria) and Sam Hussey (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) must surely fall into that third category! Their collective extroverted characterization and comic timing, both verbally and physically, is excellent and they had me laughing aloud on a number of occasions.

More subtle and restrained, (in comparison, but still excellent and hilarious nonetheless!), are the humorous performances from Suze Avery (Viola), Alec Walters (Malvoleo), Ruby Tansey-Thomas (Olivia) and James Fairley (Sebastian). Make no mistake, each member of the cast has their moment to shine and do so, the supporting actors and ensemble each combining with the principals to make this a really high quality collaborative production.

There are very different challenges in performing al fresco to those of being on a more traditional indoor stage, but none more so than the new venue being almost directly under the take-off route from Southampton Airport! More inexperienced actors may have persevered with delivering their lines, undeterred by the engines entirely drowning out their dialogue, or be completely thrown off-kilter and lost their way completely. Not the case here at all! The company not only accepted that this was an inevitable consequence of their new location, but embraced the cameo roles of the aircraft as they flew overhead and seamlessly incorporated them into the play. Do not be deceived by how skilful this actually is to achieve and to appear so effortless in doing so – and the audience clearly appreciated and enjoyed each little nod and ad lib to cover the intrusion; and there was not a prompt to be heard – happy days! It’s also difficult to have an intricate lighting design when most of the play is performed in broad daylight, but Clive Weeks’ atmospheric lighting in Act 2 added to the overall aesthetic appeal.

Director Fran Morley and her production team have ensured that the aesthetics and music are most firmly placed in the 1980s, with costume and make up easily identifiable with styles from New Romantic boy bands and artists such as Adam Ant, Cyndi Lauper, Toyah, Madonna, David Bowie and Annie Lennox, Miami Vice suits (complete with no socks), choreographed movements reminiscent of Bananarama or one of Ric Mayall’s alter egos on a wild night out, and a soundtrack throughout cleverly compiled by James Norton to connect with the narrative. Apart from one or two slightly sticky sections, the unexpected fireworks from elsewhere and overhead interruptions from the flightpath (both very nicely handled by the cast!), this a generally well paced and slick production. It is also very good to note that each actor remains in character until completely out of sight of the audience (which I have often seen overlooked in some other outdoor productions where the entrances and exits may be further afield than the actors are normally used to).

Run continues until 20 July (7.30pm each evening with a 2.30pm Saturday matinee). Grounds open for picnics from 6.00pm (1.00pm for matinee). Pack up a picnic and a chair, and head off to Townhill Park House for a thoroughly entertaining evening of mischief and mayhem!