Bard casts his spell on hall

Shakespearean magic cast an enchanting spell over one of north Norfolk's most historic homes last night during a star-studded production of Twelfth Night.


Shakespearean magic cast an enchanting spell over one of north Norfolk's most historic homes last night during a star-studded production of Twelfth Night.

With the Marquess of Cholmondeley's majestic Houghton Hall as an impressive backdrop, a whole host of famous faces entertained theatre-goers with one of the Bard's most popular comedies.

And Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall added a royal sparkle to the event when they joined the audience fresh from the Sandringham Flower Show along with musician Jools Holland.

Norfolk's own Stephen Fry and Liza Goddard, and comedian Mel Smith, were just a few of the performers who gave up their time for what is one of Norwich Theatre Royal's biggest fundraisers for its 250 Appeal.

The fund aims to give the city venue a £10m facelift by the autumn and this week Twelfth Night, set in 1930s England, is expected to raise about £100,000.

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The four-night open-air performance was dreamt up by Theatre Royal chief executive Peter Wilson and Lord Cholmondeley.

And last night, just over a week after rehearsals began, the curtain went up for the opening night. Before the show the audience enjoyed picnics in the grounds of the grand 18th century Palladian house, determined not to let the threat of rain dampen their evening, before being entertained under the stars with a merry-go-round of comic adventure involving shipwreck, love and mistaken identity.

Mr Wilson, who directed the show, said creating the show had been a "white knuckle ride" and that things had gone "astoundingly well".

He added: "The astounding thing is that we have three Olivier-award-winning actors and you would never encounter a cast like that even in the West End, and what is so wonderful is that they are all doing it for the love of the Theatre Royal, and they are having the greatest time."

Mr Fry came straight from filming his TV drama Kingdom to perform at Houghton. He said he had always wanted to play the show's strait-laced servant Malvolio, and that while the single week's rehearsal was a little intimidating, it was probably just as long as Shakespeare's own actors would have had to prepare.

He added: "The Theatre Royal introduced me to theatre and everything I love about it. I saw my first Shakespeare there. I saw my first opera there. I also saw Morecambe and Wise, Spike Milligan and much else besides. I owe it a great deal."

Mel Smith, who played Sir Toby Belch, said: "I got involved because Peter asked me and he is one of my oldest friends. It is a bit scary that we have had such a short rehearsal time but that's no bad thing because the adrenalin kicks in and drives you forward.

"Houghton Hall is such a fantastic setting and perfect for the show."

Twelfth Night begins with Viola, played by rising talent and RADA graduate Jeany Spark, being washed onto the shores of Illyria where she masquerades as the page Cesario in the court of the lovesick Duke Orsino (Waterloo Road's Jamie Glover).

He uses Cesario to woo Lady Olivia (Sasha Behar who played Coronation Street's mad Maya Sharma) for him but, in true Shakespearean fashion, the path of true love does not run smoothly, that is until Viola's long-lost brother Sebastian (Alexander Owen) returns.

Meanwhile, Stephen Fry is pompous servant Malvolio, the butt of all jokes in Lady Olivia's household, where Olivia's rowdy uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Matthew Kelly), and Olivia's maid Maria (Harriet Walter) frolic about with hilarious consequences.

One of the many other performers to also get involved is Desmond Barrit, an Olivier Award winner and Theatre Royal pantomime veteran, who plays the role of Feste. Mr Barrit, who has appeared in 11 other versions of Twelfth Night, said: "I have done a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of pantomime at the Theatre Royal so when Peter asked me to do this I was delighted because I love Norfolk. It's like a second home to me."

Twelfth Night runs until Saturday. All performances start at 7.30pm. Tickets cost from £65. A Gold Package is available which costs £100 and includes pre-show champagne and canapés in the Portrait Gallery.

For more information or to book tickets visit: or call the box office on 01603 630000.

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