Although the goats do look marvellous, I’m guessing the barn at Lambeth’s Oasis Urban Farm can’t have seen many standing ovations before. There’s no doubt, however, that the four-strong cast of HandleBard’s touring Twelfth Night thoroughly deserved theirs. The travelling troupers’ cycle between gigs, hence the name. They announced they had already covered 140 miles just to get to us. A quick glance at their plans shows they have plenty more miles to go. The good news is they look ridiculously fit and healthy. The better news is they make this show’s manic costume changes, barmy accent choices and the broadest of comedy look easy.
How broad is the broadest of comedies, you ask? In this case, buxom Maria’s hastily constructed bosom occasionally pops and needs replacing. Bring on the balloons! If that sounds a bit Benny Hill then, relax this is a wholly innocent, child-friendly, if not actually childlike, adaptation of the Bard’s most often played gender-swapping romps.
At almost two hours long, romp might not entirely be the right word. For every physical gag, there is quite a lot of banging on about who loves who. I found myself occasionally regressing to six-year-old boyhood – yuck, another lovey-dovey bit – so impatient was I for the action to crack on. The story, and nobody is to blame for this but the author himself, is ridiculously drawn out. But my God, the cast power through. Every comic muscle and sinew is put to work keeping us entertained. Joyful prop gags, one-liners, ad-libs, double takes and pratfalls keep coming.
Watching Roisin Brehony transition between a feisty Olivia and grotesque Sir Toby Belch is a particular joy. George Attwell Gerhards’ Malvolio will get all the headlines, but his Sir Andrew got at least as many laughs. His broad black country accent choice proving any notion Shakespeare is best served by RP is categorically nonsense. Eddie Mann’s Feste the Fool makes for a wonderfully sardonic master of ceremonies and leads the music with beautiful folky ukulele and harmonica stylings. Did I mention there were songs too? Brontë Tadman has the unenviable task of playing both Sebastian and Viola. The last few minutes, when the two are reunited, is a physical comic highlight.
Only occasionally do things go over the top. I didn’t catch a word of Feste’s Parson, for example, through a ridiculous false beard and outrageous accent. No harm done really, we got the gist. Getting the gist is probably just fine too. If the intricacies of which Duke lives in which kingdom and who serves who are lost in the frenetic action, surely only purists should care? The rest of us can happily enjoy ourselves snobbery free.
The Handlebards have, as a company, been doing this style of travelling wholly accessible Shakespeare for almost a decade. They are wise enough to play the fool. It would be a wise decision for you to catch this new tour too.
Directed by: James Farrell
Design by: Connie Watson
Composer & Musical Direction by: Guy Hughes
Fight Direction by: Tom Jordan
Produced by: Tom Dixon & Paul Moss
Handlebards are on tour with Twelfth throughout the UK until 17 September. Check their website for full tour dates here.