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The Rose Playhouse, Bankside

It’s always a pleasure to visit a theatre in London that I’ve not previously attended, and given that there are around 240, large and small, in the capital I’m in no danger of running out any time soon.

The Rose, however, is different.

Located at Bankside, and built across the river from The City, and across from the only other two theatres then in existence (The Theatre and The Curtain) by entrepreneur Philip Henslow in 1587, the fact that it effectively ceased to be a theatre by 1604 or 1605, and had been dismantled by 1606, doesn’t detract from it having been, in its fewer than twenty years of existence, a key driver in the flowering of the Elizabethan stage, and the proving ground for William Shakespeare, several of whose early works – the history plays, Henry IV, etc we know plated there. Indeed, when the theatre did eventually come to the end of its useful life it doesn’t appear to be through lack of custom, but because it was just too small, and by the turn of the seventeenth century The Globe was packing them in just a few short yards away, and proving a very profitable investment to all who had a share.

Well, to cut a long story VERY short… The exact site was effectively lost until the late 1980’s when construction in the area saw it rediscovered, and after public outcry what was left was preserved for posterity at the foot of the building in what might best be described as a huge gray concrete bunker.

It is within this rather unprepossessing environment that Ovo Theatre are presenting their reworked version of Twelfth Night, or rather more accurately, on the raised viewing platform safely away from both the water which protects the archaeological remains, and the electric lights which map out the theatre’s perimeter.

Ovo’s big idea – which actually works rather well – is to relocate the setting from fictional city-states to two ocean liners, the SS Elysium, and the SS Illyria. Count Orsino becoming Captain Orsino of the SS Illyria.

Our story starts with the shipwreck of twins Viola and Sebastian (here a successful music hall dancing double dance act) each of whom thinks the other lost at sea (Lucy Crick & Joshua Newman) who do what they have to do to survive which, in the case of Viola, means dressing up as a man to push Captain Orsino’s (Will Forester’s) claim to Olivia (Emma Watson) a rich and attractive film star who just happens to be doing the  transatlantic crossing on the SS Illyria with her entourage which falls squarely into two camps; Olivia’s friends, and her loyal staff. In a very nice little twist to spice things up, a couple of the key characters have been gender-swapped.

So, Sir Toby Belch becomes Lady Toby Belch (Anna Franklin), a washed up and bibulous former music hall star, and her bête noir, Malvolio, Olivia’s loyal and loving personal assistant, becomes Malvolia, and for me this was the most successful of the changes, both because in Faith Turner we see an actress who is exquisitely detailed in her performance, and because of the implied lesbian love affair between mistress and servant which echoes relationships elsewhere in the play, and which I am sure Shakespeare would have loved, and explored, had he been able to have women on stage.

I don’t have space to name-check all the cast, so just take it as a given that they are all excellent…and not just in acting, for the other major change that Ovo have made is the interpolation of slightly over a dozen contemporary songs. I noted a few: Me and my Umbrella (Rihanna), Material Girl (Madonna), Oops, I did it again (Britney Spears), even My Heart will go On (from Titanic), though wisely they’ve eschewed trying to get the songs to tell the story, and instead they function to provide a point of calm to allow you to take in the twists of the crazy plot.

There have obviously been cuts to allow for the songs, etc. but if anything they have tightened this lovely little show, so I wish them all the best with its future.

  • Drama
  • By William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Adam Nichols
  • Choreographed by Jill Priest
  • Cast includes: Lucy Crick, Joshua Newton, David Widdowson, Will Forester, Hannah Francis-Baker, Anna Franklin, James Douglas, Alex White, Tom Cagnoni, Elena Ollett, Emma Watson, faith Turner, Jane Withers, Andy Margerison
  • The Rose Playhouse, Bankside
  • Until 5th May 2019

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

When he’s not out toiling to pay the mortgage Richard is a fan of all things musical theatre, is a member of Mercury Musical Developments, and has been an active contributor to the Book, Music, and Lyrics Workshop Programme here in London since its inception.

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