Review: Twelfth Night by Jenny Wren Productions

Jenny Wren Productions perform Twelfth Night

Jenny Wren Productions perform Twelfth Night - Credit: Archant

Gloucestershire’s Jenny Wren Productions are fast becoming one of Katie Jarvis’s favourite theatre companies – and, following their latest tour of Twelfth Night, here are a dozen reasons why.

Jenny Wren Productions presents Twelfth Night

Jenny Wren Productions presents Twelfth Night - Credit: Archant

So let’s try to imagine the perfect evening: a Shakespeare comedy (NB, one that’s actually funny, just to narrow the field a bit); a gorgeous setting (in the grounds of Westonbirt School - that stunning Holford house: in a golden garden, with cows lowing and blackbirds singing, as backdrop); a picnic, with a chilled white and a hunk of Single Gloucester; Jenny Wren Productions performing (one of the funniest, quirkiest bundles of talent ever to lighten Gloucestershire’s doorstep); and the malely beautiful Jeremy Irons sitting on the picnic rug beside me, telling me how much he loves my necklace.

So close… Oh, so close…

Twelfth Night, and the scene opens with Pierrots – a feast of Festes – ukulele-accompanied, launching into the authentic Elizabethan classic (maybe even penned by Henry VIII himself), Oh I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside.

“If music be the food of love,” sighs the Duke, not afraid to stare down more purist classic music enthusiasts. (And clearly an indication that the world was ready for George Formby way before his birth-star got its act together.)

You know you’re in for a treat with Jenny Wren. I saw their Hound of the Baskervilles in France Lynch last summer, as part of Ed O’Driscoll’s brilliant AIR in G programme, which takes productions round rural Gloucestershire village halls. I laughed so uncontrollably that Holmes would undoubtedly have deduced how many children I’d given birth to.

But tonight was more traditional: Twelfth Night as it should be, the sublimity not at all dimity,

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the yellow-stockinged laughs played with perfect Brian Rix/Moliere-ian overacting. The extra asides and unique musical interludes – the latter thanks to the amazing Elise Heaven – turned a play that belongs to everyone into Jenny Wren’s own.

So let’s talk about the cast. When Liam Wheeler appeared in the initial post-shipwreck scene as a sailor, stuttering and stumbling over his lines, I came close to diving under my picnic rug. But I’d forgotten that people do something called acting. He turned out to be fantastic – stole my heart as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose fight scene with Cesario was an utter comic masterpiece; and as the uppity Welsh vicar who joins Sebastian and Olivia in holy matrimony, in a mass of Valley sulks. (Besides which, Sir Andrew has my favourite Shakepeare line ever, constantly adored.)

Elise – a Wren regular – has a cat called Shakespeare, though this proved largely irrelevant. As Viola/Cesario, she utterly shone, though it must have been nothing short of exhausting trying to solve the problem of also playing Maria, who spent an inordinate amount of time just laughing.

Then there was the delightful Hannah Churchill as Olivia; Julian Freeman as Duke Orsino and Sir Toby Belch (a wonderful transition from the Formby-favouring Duke to a man who’d dearly like to have joined in with audience picnics); Joe Hackett as Sebastian, whose iambically-versed programme biography showed how right he was to have become an actor (a mirror image of Shakespeare’s own talents, of course). And Hugh Young as the strutting Malvolio and the ill-treated Antonio.

All such good fun! I loved the way they each played several characters, even if it meant the complexity of a small cast weighed heavy on Ian (who accompanied me in lieu of Jeremy).

And then there’s director Jenny Wicks, whom I’ve begun to get to know from my forays to the Everyman, where she’s also deputy theatre manager.

This, the programme says, is the 12th year of Jenny Wren Productions; not only that, but this Twelfth Night tour consisted of 12 performances; and it’s 12 years since Jenny graduated in drama and French. So here goes: witty, original, entertaining, clever, talent-spotting, subtle, eclectic, unafraid, entrepreneurial, intuitive, eminently professional and local – there are 12 good reasons to go and see a Jenny Wren production, just for starters.