The plot of Twelfth Night has always been ridiculous. Violia dresses as a man and is employed by the Duke to woo the Countess. Naturally, the Countess falls for the servant, the servant falls for the master, and the master is really worried he may have a crush on his young charge. Keeping up?

It plays a lot like an 80s John Hughes movie, a fact that director Mark Leipacher runs with. What we get is a highly stylised world where the 80s never ended. Viola’s disguise as Cesario would not be out of place hanging in Ducky’s wardrobe or being gyrated in by George Michael at the height of Wham’s popularity.

In the romantic whirlwind of mistaken identities that follows, the loser comes out first. The unlucky Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Jonny McPherson, steals the show. I haven’t seen a greater toff since Harry Enfield’s befuddled Tim Nice-But-Dim. One look to the audience and we were in stitches. When Sir Andrew fails to get the girl (spoilers) the crowd let out a very genuine and spontaneous “aww”.

Clowning is the priority in this highly energetic performance, with no set to hold the cast back our entertainment comes thick and fast. The small stage becomes a gym as the actors start intense circuit training. Actors are lifted, carried, grappled and thrown about by each other in every way conceivable. Things soon got hot and heavy in the New Diorama.

Like any good screwball comedy all the characters in Twelfth Night have sex on their minds. Malvolio raves and contorts to the promise of his lady’s favour – in a performance Richard O’Brien would be proud of. Maria will floor you with her dry jest, and if that doesn’t work she’ll Febreeze you in the face. And Olivia’s eyes pop out of her head when she sees Cesario with his twin.

The show is played out with style and a knowing wink at the audience. Sadly, Sebastian and Antonio aren’t in on the joke and play all their scenes dreadfully seriously. Given the choice between a man fencing his own shadow and what barely passes for plot there is no contest for the audience’s attention. Fencing wins every time in Illyria.

Another time where the audience was divided came during Malvolio’s prison scene. As part of Sir Toby’s plot, Malvolio is imprisoned for being mad, and to rub salt in the wound Sir Andrew visits the inmate in his cell. The lighting and staging do a great job of creating the creepy dungeon that Malvolio is confined to. But seeing this ghoulish sight, we are afraid that Malvolio may actually be driven mad and our sympathy shifts to him. Feste’s taunting jars and makes him seem more of a bully than a Fool.

Feste redeems himself by singing some wonderful songs. These gave the show a lot of heart and made it feel more fulfilling than just a very well done farce. The frantic speed winds back, the lighting dims and a sweet song moves us, giving the audience, and the actors, a much appreciated breather.

Twelfth Night is playing at the New Diorama as part of The Faction’s residency there. I’ll be back to see Miss Julie later this month and will need a very good excuse not to see Mary Sue as well. It makes the show all the more impressive knowing everyone involved is also performing in the rest of the repertory season.

If you didn’t know who I was talking about when I mentioned Ducky, Wham, Tim Nice-But-Dim or John Hughes then this may not be the Twelfth Night for you. But if you want frivolous farce sprinkled with moments of genuine sentiment then this is for you. Jolly good show.

Twelfth Night is playing at the New Diorama Theatre as part of Faction Theatre’s REP Season until 14th February. For more information and tickets, see the New Diorama Theatre website. Image by Richard Davenport.