THEATRE / An inglorious Twelfth: Paul Taylor reviews Twelfth Night at Stratford

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No one can work an audience better than Desmond Barrit: he is to engaging camp what a butter mountain is to butter. Whether as Toad in Wind in the Willows or as Brazen in The Recruiting Officer, this gifted, corpulent comedian has the knack of totally winning you round to characters who would otherwise be objectionable. Is this a talent, though, you would wish to see applied to Malvolio, the killjoy steward in Twelfth Night? If the first night audience for Ian Judge's tourist-friendly production is anything to go by, the answer is an overwhelming yes. This, then, is a minority report.

Barrit is, of course, very, very funny. With a mournful Welsh lilt and feeble strands of hair forced, kicking and screaming, across his bald pate, this Malvolio perambulates his massive circumference about in a parade of dignity he cannot possibly bring off. Enjoined to smile more, he practises by pulling his mouth up in a lewd, lopsided pucker, such as might get you arrested, and then remodels it with his fingers into a grimace that merely suggests stark insanity. Barrit's Malvolio takes to the fashion hint about the yellow stockings cross-gartered in a big way, for when he whips off his cape in front of Olivia (Haydn Gwynne) he's a sheer vision in yellow and black - ruff, slops, the lot.

What you don't get, though, is any real sense of the character's repression or of the danger posed by his interfering zeal. True, many good Malvolios have shown there's a dandy waiting to burst out of the buttoned-up wrappings, but Barrit's version of him seems congenitally stage-struck, which is ironic when you reflect that men of Malvolio's ilk were to close down the theatres only 40-odd years after Twelfth Night's composition.

Instead of conjuring the complex, mixed atmospheres of the play, Judge panders to rudimentary tastes. For example, although Derek Griffiths's Feste sings well, the awful saccharine plaintiveness of the music suggests that this Fool must have been the Johnny Mathis of the Jacobean world. It is haunting, but more like toothache than heartache. Like the dinky half-timbered houses in the distance and the utterly palatable drunken disorderliness of Tony Britton's Sir Toby Belch and Bille Brown's Sir Andrew Aguecheek, it would go down a storm, you feel, at Chichester, where they enjoy a challenge about as much as Sir Peter Hall likes rest.

Emma Fielding has some affecting moments as the disguised Viola, although her most touching speech is undercut by the staging. Would a page and master really find themselves both sitting on the latter's bed in their night- clothes like a couple of girls at a stop-over party? And wouldn't Viola's emotional plight be communicated better if you stressed rather than made light of the social constraints? Steven Elliott is allowed to give due emphasis to Antonio's homosexual crush on Robert Bowman's Sebastian, and, near the beginning, we even see this pair disgorge, clutching each other, by the storm-tossed sea. For the most part, though, this crowd- pleaser of a production coughs up nothing surprising.

'Twelfth Night' is sponsored by the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trust. Booking: (0789 295623)