This is glorious. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much at a Shakespeare play, and I have certainly never seen a production of Twelfth Night in which Sebastian’s realisation that the young man standing opposite him is actually his sister Viola has brought a tear to my eye.

Director Jimmy Fairhurst and his collaborators Louise Haggerty and Andrew Butler of Not Too Tame, the Warrington–based theatre company specialising in ‘a good night out’*, have fulfilled their brief. It would be hard to imagine a better one. They are in the business not so much of bringing Shakespeare ‘up to date’ as using a modern cultural vernacular to engage and sharpen the audience’s understanding and enjoyment and make the bard more accessible. Sort of taking the fear out of Shakespeare, and we have all felt that at times.

This production at Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot begins with Feste the clown, a direct and extremely cheeky Louise Haggerty, goading the audience into a bit of competitive chanting. Then enter the twins, the equally excellent Georgia Frost as Viola and Tom Sturgess as Sebastian, playing and singing The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter loudly on guitars, which is a great way to start anything.

Louise Haggerty, Twelfth Night. Credit Patch Dolan. 

Shakespeare’s dialogue slips in almost unnoticed, and pretty soon it is singing along, and the story of twins separated by a storm and falling in love with the wrong people, and the chaos of disguise and mistaken identities ensues. For once, Sir Toby Belch, a vigorously funny Jack Brown, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a magnificent Reuben Johnson, are genuinely hilarious. Johnson deserves special mention as he doubles as Duke Orsino, with a quick change so quick it gets a huge laugh. His growing infatuation with Viola despite his stated great love for Olivia, a fine Purvi Parmar, is beautifully hinted at. Her servant Maria is played by Kate James who gives her a fizzing charm which almost allows us to sympathise with her plot to revenge herself on Olivia’s pompous and overbearing majordomo, Malvolio.

If you’ve seen any of this production’s promotion you will know that Malvolio is played by a great comedian and, it turns out, wonderful actor, Les Dennis. His Malvolio is clearly the product of a stiff Presbyterian upbringing; he snuffs out joyfulness wherever he goes, strutting around as the cross-gartered love-struck suitor in a brilliant costume designed by Good Teeth and clearly inspired by the Manchester Bee. His descent into pathos is even more pathetic. It’s a fine performance totally deserving of the call Mr Dennis gets at the end.

Once again, this prize-winning new venue demonstrates that it deserves its place in the North West cultural network. It is delivering popular and accessible theatre to a wide demographic. I used to teach in a comp ten minutes drive from here and I would have brought my pupils to everything. They would have loved it.

If you haven’t been to this theatre in the round, based on a theatre found in the basement of 10 Downing Street where Shakespeare’s men used to play in the evenings, this is the perfect opportunity. It’s not just a good night out, it’s a great night out. 

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Main image: Les Dennis, Twelfth Night. Co-produced by Not Too Tame and Shakespeare North Playhouse. Credit Patch Dolan.

Twelfth Night is at Shakespeare North Playhouse until June 29, 2024. For more information, click here.

* A Good Night Out is the title of a book by legendary writer and director John McGrath. He started 7/84 Theatre which toured the UK largely in non-theatre venues throughout the 1970s and early 80s. He advocated for a theatre that played to working class audiences who didn’t normally go to the theatre, with a priority to be skilled, relevant, and highly entertaining. Their most famous production was The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil about the various ways that the English colonised Scotland. The company name was derived from a report in The Economist in 1966 that 7 per cent of the population owned 84 per cent of the country’s wealth. It gives you an idea of what the company’s politics might have been. These days it would have to be renamed 3/95.