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Review: Twelfth Night or What You Will (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale



There's no shortage of new productions of Shakespeare classics around London at the moment, with Player Kings still playing the West End and Jamie Lloyd’s much anticipated Romeo & Juliet opening this weekend. However, a trip into the glorious Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre sees a brand new Twelfth Night or What You Will kick off this year’s summer season. With the play having history as being the very first show to be staged at Open Air Theatre, will this new production be able to match its highly publicised counterparts as a contender for the must-see Shakespeare play of the month?

Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identities has been entertaining audiences for more than 400 years now. Set against the heat of the Mediterranean sun makes it the perfect setting for one of the most picturesque theatres in London (made even better when the weather behaves itself). While various strands of plot with the overarching themes of love all play out, the key story sees Viola enters Olivia’s moonlit café, discovering her mad world but it is her separation from her twin brother Sebastian that leads to all sorts of chaos and misunderstandings.


Owen Horsley’s bold direction takes the essence of Shakespeare’s timeless classic and treads the perfect balance to ensure it is as true to the original as it could be while bringing something fresh and contemporary to the mix. Setting this version in a queer café, run by a diva, sets the tone perfectly, bringing camp and calamity to this hilarious tale that wears its heart and identity on its sleeve with pride. With characters dressing in Drag and playing other genders, it feels like the perfect update to the story – one that takes the joyous elements from the often melancholic story and maximises every bit of it in a feel-good production.

Horsley’s direction is consistently fun and varied, from recurring gags involving one characters inability to climb a step without tripping to the inspired loop opening, this is a director who is clearly in-tune to the key essences of the story but is unafraid to bring their own ideas to life in a way that marries the two together seamlessly. Standout moments in the direction include an impeccably performed overlong freeze-frame moment during a crucial bit of the story and the flawlessly played out fourth-wall breaking choice which ends act one.  Daniel Hay-Gordon’s movement works alongside this direction in fantastic fashion, bringing comedy and style to the proceedings in equal measure.


Basia Binkowska’s gorgeous blue set design transports Regent’s Park to Olivia’s bar in a static but beautifully effective set. One of the greatest elements about evening shows at Open Air Theatre is in the stunning lighting which always comes to life in the shows second act as the sky gets darker. Aideen Malone clearly had this in mind with the lighting design, as it becomes truly effective as the show progresses, adding more to the visually stimulating show. One of the strongest elements in a pretty strong and consistent show production wise is in the stunning costumes from Ryan Dawson Laight – be it nautical, camp or the increasingly outlandish outfits worn by our diva, Olivia, they are a true feast for the eyes.

If music be the food of love, play on – and play on they did, adding new songs to the existing numbers in the original text. The musical element to Twelfth Night lifts the story and plays the versatile cast to their strengths, showcasing their (mostly) gorgeous singing voices. With nine songs peppering the story, you’re never too far away from the next musical number, with the show even ending with a big number which felt like something out of Company to me (and that can never be a bad thing).


As fantastic as all of the creatives involved in this show are, the cast more than rise to the occasion, with their own inspired takes on the characters. Evelyn Miller and Andro Cowperthwaite give equally mesmerising portrayals of twins Viola and Sebastian, with Matthew Spencer a joy to watch in hisover-the-top portrayal of Andrew Aguecheek. Michael Matus delights as Toby Belch with mannerisms every bit as hilarious as his delivery of the lines and increasingly ridiculous outfits and while Anita Reynolds has a relatively small but memorable role as Maria, her understated reactions provides more comedy to the situations leaving her mark on the stage.

There were two standout performances among this wholly impressive cast. One is from Richard Cant as Malvolio who steals the show with an expertly performed monologue towards the end of act one, and delights with every appearance – no matter what he may be wearing at the time. The other standout belongs to Anna Francolini who opts to make Olivia the love-child of Patti LuPone and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in a performance I was living for. Every choice she made, every look she gave and every incredible note she sang dominated the performance. There is a lot to love about this production of twelfth Night but it is Anna’s effortlessly amazing performance that is among the aspects to love most.


Bringing something fresh and exciting to a timeless tale, Owen Horsley and a wonderful team have created something fantastic in Twelfth Night or What You Will. They may have had greatness thrust upon them in taking on this classic but, rather fittingly, have also managed to achieve greatness in themselves.

Twelfth Night or What You Will plays at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8th June. Tickets from


Photos by Richard Lakos



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