Theatre Twelfth Night Palace Theatre, Watford

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The poster for the Oxford Stage Company's warmly enjoyable touring Twelfth Night confronts you with an arresting ambiguity. Does the face photographed in close-up belong to a girl or a boy? The eyes and the broad, high-cheekboned features are teasingly androgynous. The stubble and the enigmatic twist of the mouth tell one story; the make-up and the collarbone tell another. When you recall that Twelfth Night is a play where the hero not only starts to fall in love with the heroine while she is disguised as a page boy but proposes marriage before he's been granted the tiniest glimpse of her in female civvies, this image of gender confusion can be seen to fit the bill nicely.

John Retallack's production makes sure you register the fugitive tremors of bisexuality. "If music be the food of love, play on": here, in a weird, dream-like premonitory touch, the song that Jamie Hinde's boyishly love- sick Orsino listens to at the start is sung across time by the twins, Viola and Sebastian, who have yet to meet him, let alone deflect his affections from Olivia. And, at the end, as the now rightly re-arranged couples celebrate their good fortune in a flowing, partner-swapping dance, what persists - amusingly and dangerously - is a sense of just how interchangeable these still identically dressed siblings remain.

Staged on a simple blue set, bathed in orange light and flanked by a pair of scaffolding platforms, the production has a sharp eye for underlying similarities. It's astute to have Jonathan Coyne double as the puritan steward Malvolio and Sebastian's sea-captain friend, Antonio. Practising the instructions in the forged love missive from Olivia (Lisa Turner), Coyne's Malvolio evolves hilariously from being a man who has never smiled in his life, through a period of face-deforming experimentation, and then on to grotesquely girlish shyness.

It's possible that some of the Chekhovian melancholy in the piece has been down-played in favour of the broader comedy. For example, when Alexi Kaye Campbell, who plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek as 6ft 3in of acute Spanish squeamishness, delivers the line "I was adored once, too", the potential for a jolting pathos in that claim is sacrificed to an amusing sight-gag as Sir Andrew's eyes slither round to check whether he's managed to convince Sir Toby.

Haunting of voice in the songs, Kate Fleetwood's unsettlingly androgynous Viola seems, at times, too capable a woman to take so essentially passive a role in her own fate. The performances that come off best are those where a humorous knowingness is called for: David Brett's superannuated elf of a Feste and Janine Wood who, as the plotting Maria, whisks about like a brisk, coolly self-amused sex-pot from an early Pinter.

n Ends tomorrow. Booking: 01923 225671