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October 2003
Twelfth Night
twelfth night
Twelfth Night at The Priestley
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night kicks off the new season at the new-look Priestley in Bradford. Alex Waddington went along to check it out…
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Just a few months ago, a trip to The Priestley was a sombre experience. The air was cold, the audience thin and the place had a decaying and resigned feel to it. When I paid my last visit, I really did think the place was all washed up as a theatre venue.

Well, I'm glad to say I was wrong. Dead wrong. A brand new management team, led by Tom Sandford, has come in and adopted a fresh and professional approach to running the theatre. Judging by the audiences and the general buzz around the place, all their hard work is paying off.

"Brimming with comedy value"

As the first major play of a new season - and a new era - it has to be said Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is a canny choice. For starters, there are no performance fees to pay, as the author is long deceased. What's more, the text is one being studied by hundreds of school children across Bradford, which is why both matinee performances have completely sold out. This is the kind of inspired marketing ploy that will help ensure the long-term survival of The Priestley.

The play itself is a solid Shakespearean yarn full of the Bard's favourite comedy devices - confusion, disguise and mischief. During a shipwreck, Viola is separated from her twin brother Sebastian and presumes him to be dead. Stranded in the imaginary world of Illyria, she disguises herself as a man called Cesario and enters the service of Orsino, who she falls in love with.

Meanwhile, Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia, who is mourning for her dead brother. When 'Cesario' is dispatched to woo the object of Orsino's affections, Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola. From here there is much confusion, sadness and frustration but ultimately harmony and happiness prevails.
There is also a second whimsical strand to the plot that involves much mischief and general buffoonery from Olivia's hard-up, hard-boozing uncle Sir Toby Belch, wealthy but foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the riddling court jester Feste.

When I went along to see this play on the second night, the scenes zipped along at a good pace, and it was clear all the actors had a good grasp of their lines. But delivering Shakespearean verse is not easy, and in this respect some cast members faired better than others.

In staging this production, ACT has gone for a simple design, with a two-level dais featuring arches and plants commanding one third of the stage. It certainly provides a good way for the grander characters to enter and exit, but given the space it hogs, it seems to be rather underused.

I'm always reluctant to single out individual performers in amateur productions, because I know how much effort everyone puts in. But for me Colin Fine gave one of the star performances as the boozy Sir Toby Belch. It would have been easy to overplay this part but Fine got it spot on. His timing was excellent and his subtle range of expressions and reactions were great to watch.

"Eclectic range of outfits"

As Olivia, Angela Reed gave a commanding performance, delivering her lines with crispness and ease. A mention must also go to Cat Moss, who did a sterling job in the hefty lead role of the Viola and Cesario. I'm not brilliant at identifying period costume, but the garb looked rather Victorian to me, with a few 20th century props thrown in. The bright colours and eclectic range of outfits definitely added verve and vitality to this production.

Given the tight rehearsal schedule, ACT deserves much credit for staging such a large production to such a high standard. Yes, some actors struggled to project while others were rather garbled in their delivery, but this certainly didn't spoil the evening's entertainment.

If this production has a flaw, it's the intermittent lack of stage direction. At times the actors made poor use of the available space, and end up huddled together in corners as if they were trying to keep warm. At one point towards the end of the play, the entire cast seemed to be stood in a long line across the stage, with one poor soul on the periphery looking like he was stuck to the wall.

With improved direction, I feel the production would have gained extra life and energy. When the cast did venture onto the apron, you immediately felt drawn into the action, so it's a pity they didn't threaten the front row with their toes more often. 

But this is something to work on for the future, and the fact remains that ACT's two-hour performance of Twelfth Night is accessible, enjoyable and brimming with comedy value. So if you haven't been to the theatre for a while, why not get yourself down to the new-look Priestley. An enjoyable evening, a warm welcome and a well-stocked bar awaits. Now what more could you possibly want?


 


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