First Night: Twelfth Night, Wyndham's Theatre, London

A journey into the art of love to warm the wintry season
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The Independent Culture

You begin to wonder when the Donmar Warehouse might start firing blanks, but there's no sign of that yet as their West End season moves from the incandescent Kenneth Branagh's Ivanov to as beautiful, touching and funny a Twelfth Night as London has seen in decades.

Again, the director is Michael Grandage and the designer is Christopher Oram. But we could be on the Costa Brava. Feste is in a troubador's patchwork cloak plucking an acoustic guitar and lovesick Orsino is working on his pasa dobles with a few chaps in white vests in a courtyard.

That Catalan coastline sends a sea haze over the palace of the Countess Olivia, mourning her dead father and brother. However, by the time Derek Jacobi has donned yellow stockings, barathea blazer and sea cap to make a mockery of Malvolio's self-importance, Indira Varma has shed the black weeds for a cream beach ensemble.

The visual mood is orange and warm, not unduly picturesque. Twelfth Night remains the best comedy of identity, narcissim and falling in love in the language, with a cruel streak in melancholy, too. Victoria Hamilton's Viola is the perfect instrument of quivering reaction to the antics of seduction, and embarks on a quest for love, defined in Plato's Symposium as a journey in search of our other lost half. Her identity is only complete when she finds her supposedly drowned brother, Sebastian (Alex Waldmann), and then a repository for sexual ardour in the affection of her employer, Orsino. Starting as a distressed mermaid, Hamilton becomes a pert sailor boy and accidental exponent of the art of love.

Meanwhile, Ron Cook's pocket-sized Toby Belch is hilariously paired and contrasted with Guy Henry's dim-witted Andrew Aguecheek, both in cream suits. Cook does his wooing with little Maria (Samantha Spiro) through the plots laid against Malvolio, the steward, in revenge for his puritanism. Their relationship is much focussed by cutting out Fabian, his lines given in the last act to Feste.

Jacobi discharges the letter scene with punctilious hauteur (tiniest of frowns on "these be her very c's, her u's 'nd her t's") and stretches his face into idiot-smile mode with a series of gargoyle masks that are a symphony of silliness. Jacobi joins the ranks of great interpreters of the role in his clipped whine, slow gait, the tilt of his disdainful head, and utter humiliation. As Cook, Henry and Spiro peep on the gulling from behind a beach wind-shield, there is no sign of the dreaded topiary or box trees.

The show is full of such refreshing touches, without gimmickry. And the Spanish songs of Feste (new music composed by Julian Phillips), and the elegance and bewitching beauty of Varma's Olivia are further enhancements of this imperishable comedy. It's a real treat for the holiday season.