Scoring big success with their critically acclaimed production of THE TEMPEST last year, Thick as Thieves return to the Hope Theatre with one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, TWELFTH NIGH. With a cast of only 4, the company presents a full production featuring 13 characters.

The story should be familiar to most theatregoers. Viola is shipwrecked and finds herself on the shores of Illyria, convinced that her twin brother has drowned. Disguised as a eunuch, she presents herself to Count Orsino, who is madly in love with Countess Olivia and uses Viola – now Cesario – as his messenger boy. Olivia celebrates her grief over her late brother, whilst enduring the antics of her permanently drunk uncle Toby Belch and a number of unwanted suitors, including the Count and a foolish knight. Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who is in love with Count Orsino, whilst Sir Toby and his entourage – Maria, Sir Andrew and Feste the clown – play a trick on Olivia’s stern steward Malvolio.

Right from the beginning there is interaction with the audience. The cast hand out programs and chat as we take our seats. The Hope Theatre is an intimate space and we are very close to the action, which is just as well because some of us will have to participate. The performance starts with a beautiful song, taking us to Count Orsino’s court where the Count (Thomas Judd) is indulging in his misery because of his unrequited love for Olivia (Madeleine McMahon). In the next scene we see Viola (Nicky Diss) and the Sea Captain (Oliver Lavery) pour water over their heads to illustrate that they are flushed unto the shore. Maria (Madeleine MacMahon) is not pleased when she has to clean up the mess in the following scene that takes us to Olivia’s court. Nicky Diss makes a quick costume change to present one of the funniest portrayals of Sir Toby Belch that I have ever seen.

This high-energy production, skilfully directed by Nicky Diss with perfect comic timing, is very playful, resembling a big party and the audience is invited to join in. When the cast runs out of actors to play all the important characters that are supposed to be on stage, a member of the audience is handed a prop or part of a costume. It is all good fun, nobody is put on the spot. Therefore, nobody minds when one of the actors dries up at one point. We are all having too much fun.

Nicola Diss is a charming and eloquent Viola and a hilarious Sir Toby Belch. Of course she looks nothing like her twin brother Sebastian, who is played by Oliver Lavery, but Oliver also plays Malvolio, Feste and the Sea Captain. I liked his Feste best, a quick-witted busker with dreadlocks, his Malvolio was not quite stern and misanthropic enough, yet still very good. Thomas Judd was funny and touching as Sir Andrew and foolishly romantic as Count Orsino. Madeleine MacMahon’s Olivia does a lot for the entertainment value of this production, displaying an extraordinary arrogance and vanity before doggedly pursuing the helpless Cesario. She also plays a savvy Maria, the love-struck Antonio and Orsino’s servant Valentine. While watching her performance I could picture Madeleine in the role of Malvolio, perhaps in a future production, which is not meant to take away from Oliver Lavery’s portrayal of the puritan steward.

This show is a lot of fun. There is nothing not to like.

Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin

Twelfth Night is playing at The Hope Theatre until 30th April