The Egg is a cosy and intimate venue, attached to the larger Theatre Royal in the heart of Bath’s town centre, but upon arrival I am hugely surprised to find such a young audience awaiting this matinee performance. Scores of schoolchildren who barely look old enough to attend secondary school fill the foyer which leads to me believe I am in for a more light-hearted afternoon that I had anticipated, and thankfully I am right.
This is the fourth in a series of Tim Crouch’s solo works re-imagining Shakespeare's plays from the point of view of peripheral characters, which was commissioned specifically for young audiences. Stipulations included that the production should tell the story of the host play and also that all necessary accompaniments should fit inside a suitcase. As the audience take their seats, (which are unallocated and shaped more like long settees than rows of seats, another nice informal touch) Malvolio is already on stage, muttering allowed to himself and clutching Olivia’s heavily creased letter. The set, as is to be expected, is sparse but as I will go on to see still heavily effective, almost indicative of the imprisonment Malvolio is presently suffering.
The costuming is intriguing and I can only think to describe it as an excrement stained, over sized baby gown, finished off with, of course, those now crumpled and faded yellow crossed garters. On a rail to the audience’s left hangs Malvio’s servant attire which we see him gradually change into over the course of this hour-long play.
Crouch manages to be harrowing and hysterical all at once in this fascinating one man show. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” he assures us, deeming the audience bullies, (I lost count of how many times Crouch “breaks the fourth wall” of theatre – audience members are continually singled out for criticism, their hair, their clothes, their lateness) just as he was bullied and humiliated by the protagonists of Twelfth Night, which is where meat is added to the bones of understanding the young audience have of the play.
The opening monologue is an unrelenting ramble about the impact of dropping a solitary piece of litter (the piece of litter in question is Olivia’s letter) and the escalating consequences from such an action, an action which Malvolio believes to be indicative of those bullies and “slack jawed youths” of today. In this show designed for all ages it is the puerile and the immature that works best and the younger members of the audience are beyond hysterics when one young boy is invited into the stage to kick Malvolio, as the sign pinned to his back advises.
All fun and games then? No. This is a production that flicks from the bawdy to the bleak in a matter of seconds. “You think that’s funny, do you?” the audience is asked repeatedly, and undoubtedly it is, however from this chaos the real context of Twelfth Night is pulled out and the farce of the protagonists is retold in child friendly fashion. Again we’re asked “You think this is funny?” and I’m not sure whether I want to laugh or cry for the man in the oversized baby gown. It is far more comfortable to just laugh along though, which is what everyone does. Darker moments include Malvolio standing on a chair, having pulled two audience members from their seats, eager for them to help him hang himself. Titters are still omitted from the young onlookers but this is a serious moment quickly dispersed by Crouch’s superb comic timing and we are all once again at ease.
As the production concludes, Malvolio has not forgotten about the revenge he earlier spoke of as the audience are told to stay sat exactly where they are, and not to move until his return. He doesn’t of course, which leads to a couple minutes of audience bafflement before the first bravely makes the decision to leave.
So, what to make over all of this unusual show which is a mix of educating school kids in Shakespeare, revenge for past mistreatment, comedy and an emotional outlet for a character who has had his heart broken? I hugely enjoyed Crouch’s work; it is highly entertaining, poignant and fits the criteria it was created for, especially the capsule set. I only cannot help but feel a few more references would have been nice. The show could be longer and go further into Malvolio’s turmoil but at the same time, in this show designed for children, Crouch has pitched it pretty perfectly.