World Cup blues? Gloomy world news? Personal crisis? Gender, status or identity issues? Worry not; there is an answer. Head with me down to the Hurtwood Theatre where the Christmas musical is well and truly underway. Step this way for some serious upstairs/downstairs Twelfth Night cheer. Strap on your dancing shoes, prepare for music, mayhem, sparkle and tickertape, and let’s dance, dance, dance those blues away. After all, I think it was T S Eliot who observed that we’re not designed for too much reality. Welcome to theatre, the magic of. Hurtwood style.
Ater the extraordinary intellectual glamour and challenge of Sondheim last year, this is pure celebration of a more crowd-pleasing kind. This is clean, precise musical theatre of the highest order, packed with action, glorious choreography, and a set that fizzes with little pockets of action like some kind of mad 3D advent calendar of chaos. It is a world that literally revolves like fate, offering acting space for more triangulated infatuations than Love Island itself, and enough creativity and talent from performers and facilitators alike to fire up half-a-dozen shows. It is frankly exhausting – which of course means that it is Hurtwood gold.
Step in and find out what happens when you mix the great Bard himself with
Hurtwood talent, by way of New York writing and production team Shaina Taub and Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose zany modern version of Twefth Night first aired in 2018. A lot of zany fun is the outcome, and we are most liberally invited to laugh at ourselves, even as we ultimately celebrate the fundamental optimism of humanity. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Puck’s dry observation of the human condition in A Midsummer Night’s Dream sums up the simple principle of Shakespearean comedy. Welcome to a conspiracy of joyful anarchy set here in a Mediterranean version of Arden, a bonkers blend of Mamma Mia, Educating Rita and Encanto, with all the nonsense that happens between village square and pub, in this case the fountain and local taverna. As ever, the ingenious set is the extraordinary achievement of Al and his team, with Guy and his, who ably illuminate our journey seamlessly through storm and shipwreck towards the happy state of matrimony. The sound experience is impeccable throughout, with fabulous clarity throughout rousing song and speech from first to last: thank you, Stu and team. And what of the music itself? Huge plaudits to musical director Nick, aided and abetted by the fabulous musicians who, with a seamless flow, draw us through the plot. All this, and more of course, is ably brought together by the irritatingly talented production skills of the seemingly unruffled Doug. Alongside Andy, of course, he also directs the show. How does he do it? A Faustian pact with the devil? Sadly not. Just judicious deployment of individual talents and personal genius. But let’s keep a look out...
The whole production is a treat for the senses various, with rainbow costumes to celebrate, flatter and empower the glorious youth that are our students, masterminded by the singular and cohesive vision of 8-months-pregnant Elizabeth and her team. How does she do it, I hear you ask. With such a crazy byzantine plot, the simple block colours supply subtle points of connection, with the occasional symbolism of stripes and embroidery to suggest the carnivalesque. The palette and the mood are simple: everything is crisp, direct, satisfying.
Truly stunning, as ever, is the choreography that keeps around 60 kids from careering disastrously into the set or each other, in a space that cannot claim to be large. It is frankly mind-blowing. Is there an Oscar for that? There ought to be, and picking it up for all should be Neil, who has masterminded so much brilliance over the decades at Hurtwood, aided superbly by Lottie. Sadly, this is Neil’s swansong: his last season at Hurtwood. It is categorically clear that he’s gone with a bang, not a whimper.
So, the song and dance are impressive: what then of the story? Centre frame here is all human foolishness. From genuine grief and odd family loyalties, to class tensions and bizarre, seemingly unrequited, infatuation, we are led through the action by the all-seeing, gently satirical chorus of Illyrians. This tight, vibrantly talented, energetic and muscular group of singers and dancers tie everything together: sailors and servants, toffs and peasants, lovers and losers, with nobody exempted from foolishness. Come and laugh at our universal failings – as Shakespeare most definitely intended. Come and learn those lessons, on this final day of Christmas fun, even if we all forget them straight away, before the unavoidable demands of the New Year and the workaday school term kicks in once more. It’s fun, it’s cathartic, and best of all, optimistic.
There is simply too much talent here to name individually in anything more than a passing way, and this is not a bashful cop-out. The main actors are superb in carrying forward the universal plots of misplaced love, emotional confusion, class irritation and jealously. Olivia and Orsino, Gracie and Adam, frame the opening narrative with aplomb, while Penny as Viola speeds things up with some feisty cross-dressing frolics, instantly drawing us into the issues of male authority and control. We watch with delight as Olivia’s houseful of posh hangers-on, Sir Toby Belch (a cracking little pastiche of the privileged classes from Tom), and his pal (not nice, just dim) Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a vision in neon nonsense from Roualeyn) find themselves at the mercy of her wised-up household servants. Arianna cracks a fine festive whip as the all-knowing Feste the Fool, and representing female power, the marvellously manipulative Maria, largely plays them all for her own gain. There is particular pleasure in the bringing down of their irritating, pretentious boss, head-of-house Malvolio. Played in marvellous comic form by George, this character with his self-delusions and presumptions, all high kicks and splits and yellow cross-gartering, almost steals the show. Pomposity be damned: every dog will have his day in this 12th night reversal. This is class warfare played as comedy not tragedy (somewhat less painful than the option of strikes?) Oops – reality be damned.
The crazy shenanigans, of course, are brought together by directors Doug and Andy, honing decades of expertise and complementing each other’s creative strengths. Together they foreground the talent here, and it is prodigious. Every member of the cast excels. From sexy gendarmes to conspiratorial anarchic peasants, this is heady, happy escapism, where nothing is sacred.
At one of the funniest points of the show, masculinity itself is comically challenged. “What kind of man are you gonna be?’ demand the lusty chorus of know-it-all townsfolk. With the backdrop of the boxing ring, in the shadow of alpha male heroics, and with a satirical line-up from warriors various to James Bond, all at the mercy of a treacherously revolving stage world, another question seemed to ask itself. What kind of show will this be? With some consideration, here is my answer: the kind we need right now, a happy one. One where the rule of tempest, grief and emotional confusion gives way finally to the rule of love.
Welcome to tickertape heaven, fizzing firework fountains, revolving hearts and spinning stages. On with the dancing shoes, out with the blues. Amor Omnia Vincit. This is Shakespeare, this is Christmas, this is Hurtwood.