Theatre: A light touch

Click to follow
NORTHERN BROADSIDES seem more and more at home in their Halifax base. The players wait for us in the mill undercroft whose cavernous spaces they render surprisingly warm and intimate. When we are settled they launch into an a cappella version of "O mistress mine": the good life indeed.

The show ends with its reprise, poignant as an embrace thrown about a play with the plight of castaways at its heart. There are the shipwrecked twins, Viola and Sebastian, but the sponging Sir Toby, scheming to keep Sir Andrew from going home, is forever in danger of being put out of doors. Feste's mysterious comings and goings suggest his insecurity and this production's final image shows Olivia's door shut against him. Malvolio, whose vocation is to keep an orderly house, ends up in a dark hutch as a result of his overweening desire to be master of it. Even Orsino and Olivia are emotionally rootless. So when the decorations come down there is a starkness about Twelfth Night. But its beauty lies, of course, in the exact degree to which it is glimpsed through the prevailing lightsomeness. There is a perfect such moment here when Paul Besterman's Feste sings the heart-stopping "What's to come is still unsure... Youth's a stuff will not endure" to Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who sit glistening with the effort of concentration so recognisable in sentimental drunks. The different veins are visible, too, in the superb scenes between Helen Sheals's Olivia and Julie Livesey's Viola. At first pallid with cultivated grief, the tiny Sheals zooms into coquettish sexiness as she encounters the disguised Viola's urgency. In turn Livesey is comically and touchingly amused and delighted to discover this evidence of her sexual power.

Surprisingly it is the play's darkest patch, where the gulling of Malvolio goes beyond a joke, that carries least force. Barrie Rutter's patterned cardigan shows us the kind of stickler he is aiming for, but he always seems as though he can take a joke, so the eventual cruelty of his baiting lacks pain. The balance between him and Joshua Richards's Sir Toby and John Gully's brilliantly credible Sir Andrew has to be a fine one; here the weight is too much in favour of this two-man barmy army. Together with last autumn's brilliant Samson Agonistes, Rutter's production shows how inventive and versatile Northern Broadsides has become.

Jeff Wainwright

The Viaduct, Dean Clough, Halifax until 6 February, 01422 369704; then touring