Mr Grumpy is dining out on the food of love

Twelfth Night (Duke of York, London)

Rating: 3 Star Rating

Verdict: Sunny sets, creaky acting

Richard Wilson as the tricked Malvolio

Too great expectations? Richard Wilson as the tricked Malvolio

One of the great theatrical contests of last year was between two Malvolios. On one hand, Richard Wilson in Gregory Doran's RSC production of Twelfth Night in the West End, and on the other, Derek Jacobi, who won so many awards in Michael Grandage's production at Wyndham's Theatre.

Jacobi brought the wily know-how of a classical actor to the haughty butler, but Wilson weighed in with his reputation as TV's grumpiest old man, Victor Meldrew.

And yet, the great thing about Doran's gorgeously warm and sunny production of the play about shipwrecked twins lost among lovelorn gentry is that it transcends any one performance.

It exerts a remarkable atmospheric pull with its dreamily romantic setting on the Adriatic coast in the early 19th century. It is the time when aristocrats embarked on the Grand Tour to marvel at antiquity's treasures.

The real star of the show is therefore Robert Jones's design, a world caught between Christianity and Islam, where Orthodox priests mingle with turbaned tradesmen and Jane Austen girlies consort with the Ottoman beneath stone ramparts.

This edifice is punctuated with doorways and unexpected shrines, while all around are scattered lush kilns lit by kaleidoscope lanterns. A frozen wave serves to remind of the story's sinister origin in a tempest at sea.

The effect is to create an alluring fantasy island, rendered all the more dreamy by tinkling guitars plucked by fez-topped minstrels. Wraparound sound will persuade you that there are crickets in the auditorium.

What's lost all too often, though, is the comedy, and when Wilson's pompous man-servant Malvolio has to read the forged letter that sets him on his doomed path of unrequited love, he is crudely upstaged by a bunch of ASBO toffs hiding inside topiary.

Among these malefactors, Richard McCabe as the drunken Sir Toby Belch is a lank-haired, corpulent dipso with a rheumy sweat bubbling on his brow.

At least James Fleet as his companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek mobilises a dismal charm, being a preening loser who simulates personality with a pair of tartan trousers. His repertoire of doleful looks, though, are recyclyed from his turn as the gormless aristo in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

Much the best acting comes from the two leading women. Alexandra Gilbreath is a lively Countess, burning with lust inside a black empire-line frock that could have been tailored by Giorgio Armani.

But perhaps best of all is the gamine Nancy Carroll, who plays Viola, the castaway disguised as a boy, who falls in love with the Duke Orsino. She is passionate, thwarted and weary, with an impatient manner and prettily pained expression.

As for Richard Wilson, expectations are simply too high. Thanks to his comic talent for sullen Presbyterianism, he was touted in some quarters as being 'born to play Malvolio'. Instead, he gives a low-key, emotional interpretation of a pompous puritan briefly redeemed by believing his mistress to be in love with him.

He dispatches the role deftly enough, but seems to have drifted in from a more morose production elsewhere.

At least the rest of the show is soothing to look at and glows like a sunset in a holiday brochure. Be warned, though, this may sharpen your desire to book your summer holiday before you've spent all your cash in the New Year sales.

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