Les Dennis’s Malvolio is easy to mock in this youthful Twelfth Night

Les Dennis in Twelfth Night
Les Dennis in Twelfth Night - Patch Dolan

Showbiz veteran Les Dennis has, alongside his TV presenting gigs, mostly notably on Family Fortune, has become a regular board-treader. He’s taken on roles in Hairspray, HMS Pinafore, and Venice Preserved. Now, after a short stint on Strictly last year, he finally fulfils a long-held ambition to do a Shakespeare play – and the role of the pompous steward Malvolio in this tricksy gender-swap comedy seems like smart casting.

Dennis is certainly game: the famous donning of yellow stockings, cross-gartered, to seduce the Countess Olivia is delivered with grinning, grimacing delusion, legs out between a gigantic canary-yellow quilted coat and a pair of primrose Crocs, prompting easy laughter. But his Malvolio is a mild, petty stickler for the rules, who you feel almost immediately sorry for – and reaches neither the comic heights nor tragic depths the character can provide. Fortunately, the rest of the multi-rolling young cast of eight sprinkle their own stardust on the show, making this a very good night out.

And as locations for a shot at Shakespeare go, the bijou Shakespeare North Playhouse is probably fulfilling all Dennis’s dreams: this little “wooden O”, a Jacobean-style timber-framed theatre, opened in 2022 and has pots of charm. Its intimate in-the-round nature also makes it particularly well-suited to the ad-libbing, rabble-rousing, audience-engaging style of Not Too Tame, Jimmy Fairhurst’s Warrington-based theatre company (who opened the venue with their Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Not that they’re going for a traditional setting: in this Twelfth Night, the Counts and Countesses are rock stars, and everyone else their entourage or crew. We’re backstage at a music festival, with actor-musicians delivering squalls of Gimme Shelter or dancing around to Blondie’s Maria – in praise of a scheming make-up artist of the same name (played by a commanding, watchable Kate James). The logic of this setting occasionally feels stretched, but is mostly well-realised: Orsino fancies himself as a rapper; Malvolio becomes a suit-wearing tour manager, officiously trying to keep Olivia safe behind a red curtain; Sebastian is resuscitated by an Antonia who works for St John’s Ambulance.

Best of all are Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, as Olivia’s hangers-on, cast unusually youthfully. Jack Brown and Reuben Johnson nail a certain kind of loving-the-sesh posh boys – Toby a charismatic indie sleaze darling in a frock coat and a bucket hat, Andrew a gilet-wearing dim-wit. Their drunken carousing is genuinely very funny, as is Louise Haggerty in the often-thankless role of Feste the jester (even if Shakespeare’s more convoluted wordplay still doesn’t land).

The production takes a notably high-energy approach
The production takes a notably high-energy approach - Patch Dolan

Georgia Frost and Tom Sturgess play the twins Viola and Sebastian relatively straight, with a bewildered exasperation that’s a nice foil to all the chaos – while still exhibiting enough cheeky charm that you quite understand why everyone seems to immediately fall in love with them.

This would be a great Shakespeare to bring a young audience to – it’s utterly unstuffy and hurtles along at a decent pace. Granted, Fairhurst often relies on swearily going off-script for laughs rather than really digging into what’s written, and some of the finer plot points are rushed. But these characters feel alive, the actors bringing bright clarity to their feelings and desires – whether it’s the first or 15th time you’ve seen the play, Not Too Tame really make it sing.


Until 29 June: 0151 433 7156; shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk