Review: Twelfth Night at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester

TWELFTH NIGHT/Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester, until August 19

REVIEW/by Michael Green

STARTING a six week season of open air theatre just as this had been declared the wettest summer on record may have seemed an act of folly worthy of a Shakespearean fool.

Its wisdom may have been further questioned when the opening night last Friday was preceded by the fall of a month’s rain in a single day.

According to hosts Chester Performs, however, little more than an hour before the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre began its 2012 season with Twelfth Night, the clouds parted and the rain stopped.

The following day, when I had the pleasure of seeing the production, was a scorcher and the perfect evening for enjoying arguably the Bard’s most delightful and popular romantic comedy.

Hopefully, this run of meteorological miracles will continue as this most innovative of cultural projects celebrates its third year.

The wonderfully versatile temporary theatre has returned to its original location of the project’s debut year in the park of 2010 which means trees rather than hedgerows form the natural backdrop to complete the picture of a perfect setting for outdoor Shakespeare.

And with the additional feature of covers over the two back rows, rain holds no fear for a substantial proportion of the audience - although they were more grateful for it as shade from a defiant sun on Saturday night.

And we were treated to a Twelfth Night that was certainly the equal of director Alex Clifton’s two previous Grosvenor Park Shakespeares with Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It.

Clifton quite clearly relishes the challenge of making the most of the theatre space itself and the permanent foliage around it.

There was much to-ing and fro-ing through the bushes and around the trees by the likes of Sir Toby Belch, Feste, Maria, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Co as they plotted and schemed against the pompous Malvolio.

Clifton has also assembled a completely new cast which once again effortlessly wins over the audience members with gusto, verve and exuberance.

Casting Asian actors Krupa Pattani and Haseeb Malik as siblings Viola and Sebastian was inspired and added real exoticism to the central conceit of the play.

And they contrasted dramatically with the regal figures of Orsino (Tom Radford) and Olivia (Lorna Beckett) and the rabble rousing trouble makers led by Jack Lord’s criminally scene-stealing portrayal of Sir Toby Belch and the magnificent Victoria Gee’s lusty sensuality as the bewitching Maria.

Central to the Grosvenor Park presentations this year, though, is the character of Malvolio who will crop up again in Glyn Maxwell’s new sequel Masters Are You Mad? starting on Friday.

The production therefore needed to have someone commanding and compelling in the role and it has that in no uncertain terms in the form of Matthew Rixon.

The fact that Rixon’s style of hair and beard makes him the absolute spitting image of his father Matthew Kelly can surely be no coincidence although the actor’s booming and precise intonation - not to mention the Basil Fawlty walk - are entirely his own.

Many Twelfth Nights leave you feeling Malvolio deserves all he gets - here Rixon demands sympathy for the poor man’s plight, giving everyone even more reason to return for the sequel to find out how he carries out his threat to ‘Be reveng’d on the whole pack of you’.

Not that you should need such a a reason - Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is a veritable jewel in the cultural crown of Chester and deserves the support of everyone who wants to see performing arts thrive in the city.