#Review: Illyria’s Twelfth Night @ The Palm House, Liverpool, 09.07.23


With its shipwreck, cross-dressing concealment of identity, and love both requited and unrequited, Twelfth Night is the quintessential Shakespearean comedy. There is a rule of thumb in cinema that, for a film to be considered a comedy, it has to have at least six decent laughs. If you don’t find yourself laughing out loud at least twice as often at this production, I can only assume you’re more of a misery than the puritanical Malvolio. 

Illyria’s Twelfth Night has all of the elements you’d hope for from outdoor theatre from the outset – alongside the humour, the high energy, and the direct connection with the audience; but it also develops to display much more besides.

The ease with which the cast of five switch from one character to the next is a case in point. With Twelfth Night being a play of disguises and mistaken identity, you’d think this doubling, tripling, and more, might create unwanted confusion. Amy Lockwood, MacKenzie Mellen, David Sayers, Callum Stewart and Nick Taylor make keeping the story straight look deceptively simple, when it is actually anything but.

The challenges of staging Shakespeare as outdoor theatre with a small cast mean there are some bold decisions made, particularly around characterisation. Given how well the cast – under very crisp and clear-eyed direction from Oliver Gray – meet these challenges, and how well the text responds, this approach imparts a clarity to the storytelling that some much larger companies might do well to emulate.

The simple, perfectly lucid way asides are dealt with is another example of this clarity; if brevity is the soul of wit, then here is wit aplenty.

On the whole, the cast and crew also turn pretty much every other challenge to their advantage with similar grace. Given the logistical constraints of touring, for example, both the stage and set need to be both collapsable enough to enable their transport, and constructed in such a way to avoid making assembly too onerous. Instead of these apparent constraints limiting what actually happens, Alan Munden’s ingenious design and some very nice stagecraft are part of what makes this a highly entertaining evening.

This isn’t to say the production is perfect. There are a few moments when the (mostly exemplary) clarity, diction and projection unnecessarily give way to raw volume, for example; and there are a couple of pieces of stage business that might be tightened up slightly. However, these occasions are so few and far between they take little away from the overwhelmingly positive overall impression.

I suspect there were many in the audience who were already familiar with Illyria’s work; I’d estimate there were over 150 people in the audience, which is some turn-out on a Sunday evening when the earlier weather had been so changeable. I found myself hoping that – especially for some of the younger ones – this might be their first experience of seeing Shakespeare being brought to life. If so, I can well imagine this being the start of a lifelong love of the Bard.

It would be a slight exaggeration to say that, before the curtain rose, my heart sank upon seeing in the programme just how small the cast was; in the end, it was almost jarring to see just five actors taking their well-deserved plaudits, given how fully they’d populated the performance.The same company will soon be bringing their productions of Pride and Prejudice and Robin Hood to the Palm House. I’m going to try to get to both, and suggest you should try to, too.

(Special mentions to MacKenzie Mellen for writing her biog not just in a sonnet, but a sonnet that actually works; and to Kate Martinez, Head of External Relations at the Palm House, for her warm welcome, and clear pride in what this magical venue has to offer).

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