Review: Baker’s End — The King of Cats

In a year marked by celebrity death after celebrity death, it’s hard not to look at Tom Baker’s latest project — a trilogy of audio dramas about the death of Tom Baker — without going ‘yes, of course’. It’s not just a matter of being in tune with the zeitgeist. Tom Baker has displayed a morbid sense of humour before now, and he’s worked on audio projects with Paul Magrs since 2009. But while Baker’s End follows from what’s come before, this first episode, The King of Cats, crackles with a strange energy of its own. Magrs takes a constant delight in wrong-footing the listener, and Baker plays along gleefully; whatever one might expect from the premise, you can be sure you won’t quite be getting it.

Our story centres on actress Suzy Goshawk, played by the wonderful Katy Manning, who we meet on the train to Tom’s funeral in the quiet village of Happenstance. This is Manning’s show as much as Baker’s, and she’s pure charm; the plot throws tarot readings, sinister villagers, dancing dragons and twerking pensioners at her, and she sells them all with conviction and wit. She makes an excellent straight woman to the bizarre plot, as well as to Tom Baker himself, who makes his grand re-entrance at the halfway mark. Baker plays the whole thing with a darkly manic glee, relishing the wordplay of Magrs’ script, and generally overacting the hell out of everything. He’s clearly having the time of his life, and for all the sombre background the script never lets him become melancholy.

Baker’s star power is formidable, but the rest of the cast are great fun too. David Benson is delightful as a nervous stereotype of a vicar, and Susan Jameson is effectively sinister as Tom’s disgruntled housekeeper. Simon Barnard’s production is subtly creepy, solidifying the slight wrongness of the whole thing, even if the musical cues get a bit repetitive. The plot structure, typically of Magrs, is shambolic; things take a while to get going, and the conclusion feels awfully rushed. But that leisurely pace also gives the performers plenty of space to breathe, and lends the audio a pleasingly introspective feel. Magrs gets in some lovely jokes, including several pitched firmly at the Doctor Who crowd, but they all carry subtly dark undertones. The scenes of Tom Baker trashing a celebrity cooking show and falling off a rooftop in the nude are grimly whimsical, and the audio presents a strange melange of images that never quite sit comfortably. The conclusion naturally sees the baddies defeated, but the tone is one of menace as much as celebration. There’s a finality to this audio, a sense of bedding down for the winter, even with the promise of further adventures.

We all know why this is, of course. It’s there in the title. Despite the cast of Bafflegab and Big Finish veterans, the work Baker’s End most closely resembles is Blackstar; a closing note with all the energy of what came before. A refusal to go out quietly. But where Blackstar was intense and enigmatic, Baker’s End is playful and generous. It invites us to share in its twisted joy, even as it wilfully refuses to explain itself. Paul Magrs delivers a funny, beautiful, and deeply touching play on that shared knowledge, and Tom Baker throws himself into it with aplomb. This audio could only have come from their unique creative partnership, and it will be interesting to see where the series goes from here. Wherever it is, we can be sure it won’t be boring.

Baker’s End— The King of Cats is available from Bafflegab Productions, for £9.99 on CD or £6.99 as a download. 

Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 30 July 2016. It contains some bad language. Obviously.

It is the greatest binary in human thought. The divine and the earthly. The sacred and the obscene. Or, as Melissa Mohr puts it in her debut book, the Holy and the Shit. Mohr has a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Stanford University, which puts her expertise in the middle of the period covered by Holy Sh*t, which chronicles foul language from ancient Rome to the present day. The basic appeal of the book is a kind of Horrible Histories for grown-ups: an examination of the rudest aspects of human speech, lent respectability by virtue of being published by OUP. Your opinion of the book will likely depend on whether seeing the dialectic of history applied to swearing causes you to shake your head or grin like a schoolboy. But while taboo thrills are certainly fulfilled, the book provides an interesting glimpse into history and culture, even if this 2016 paperback release hasn’t added much in the three years since the hardback came out.

The book starts with ancient Rome, and the Latin ancestors of modern swearwords. Subsequent chapters focus on swearing in the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Mohr states from the outset that her primary focus is on swearing in Britain and North America, and she distinguishes between two types of swearing – oaths, and obscenities. That is, swearing in a religious sense (such as ‘By God’s bones!’ or ‘Oh my God!’) versus swearing which refers to taboo acts or body parts (words like fuck or cunt). It’s an intriguing dichotomy, even if it seems to leave a lot out: positive obscenities, like ‘fucking brilliant’ or ‘it’s the shit’ don’t get a look-in. But Mohr handles her topic with wit and panache, and the book is most interesting when the two categories begin to bleed together, as in phrases like, well, ‘Holy Shit!’

The Holy, originally, was the more powerful of the two. Mohr notes that “Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit… The Holy provided the strongest taboos and most highly charged language.” It was even believed that swearing could physically wound Christ himself. Mohr recounts a fourteenth-century fable in which the Virgin Mary confronts a swearer with her son’s mutilated body. “Here is my son… his head all broken, and his eyes drawn out of his body and laid on his breast, his arms broken in two, his legs and feet also. With your great oaths you have torn him thus”. It was with the decreasing power of religious institutions from the Renaissance onwards that “the Shit started to make a comeback”, and swearing by the human body started to become more offensive than swearing by divine ones.

But the Holy and the Shit, while entertaining in themselves, are a lens to focus on the wider culture of the historical periods in which they were used, and Mohr’s anecdotes provide entertaining colour. Her treatment of the Victorians is especially interesting, as she tells us that John Ruskin was shocked at the sight of his wife’s vulva, and that Robert Browning used the word twat in one of his poems without apparently knowing what it meant. Mohr argues that euphemistic Victorian language “covered up twat and the rest of the female body so thoroughly that that they disappeared altogether for our two eminent Victorians”. The erasure of the female body in language is rich in its implications, and insights like these are proof that Mohr’s potty-mouthed approach can yield valuable historical insights.

In this same chapter a new type of foul language crops up, which represents a problem for the book. Mohr argues that the rise of European nationalism “also led to the creation of a whole new category of swearing – racial and ethnic slurs.” It’s an awkward moment – Mohr is unflinching in her discussions of racist words, but she’s conscious that they do not fit comfortably into the Holy/Shit paradigm she’s been exploring for the last two hundred-odd pages. Racial and ethnic slurs haven’t even been mentioned up this point, despite Mohr’s admittance that they existed prior to this. As such, the theme feels under-developed – the following chapter, on ‘Swearing in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’, does better, but the transition still jars. The book spends so much time on the power of the Holy and the Shit that it seems unwilling to introduce a third category, only nodding towards such language when it reaches critical mass. This final, and many would argue most heinous, type of obscenity is left without a category of its own.

There are also some minor nitpicks, most notably that the ’Postscript’ of this 2016 release feels tacked-on and brief, adding little of value to the book overall. It serves to drag out an already disappointing epilogue, which offers little beside lukewarm speculations about the future of swearing. But while the ending is a disappointment, the journey is undoubtedly worth taking. Mohr takes obvious pleasure in her subject, and the book has a light touch which makes the intricacies of Renaissance theology just as entertaining as the etymology of the work fuck. Calm, precise, and terribly good fun, Holy Sh*t is a must-read for the foul-mouthed and the clean.

Review: Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 21 July 2016.

Emma Smith’s study of Shakespeare’s First Folio sets out with the aim “to contextualise the material Shakespeare”. As such, it’s less a book about the material of Shakespeare than the material around Shakespeare, less about the text itself than about note-taking, performing, and doodling in the margins. Smith presents a thorough, cogent, and highly readable history of this landmark publication, and while her sense of structure is occasionally idiosyncratic, this is a definitive work of Shakespeare bibliography. It’s also a refreshingly materialist piece in a year of gaudy Shakespeare pageantry.

The book is organised into five chapters: ‘Owning’, ‘Reading’, ‘Decoding’, ‘Performing’, and ‘Perfecting’. The history is organised thematically rather than chronologically, and this is true even within the individual chapters. At first this can be a bit disorientating, as the first chapter lurches from eighteenth century book collectors, to the use of the Folio in the first ever National Lottery broadcast, then back to book collecting in the twentieth century. But once the reader has found their sea-legs it makes for quite an appealing style, governed by associative logic rather than strict chronology. It allows Smith to play the raconteur – she is ultimately less interested in Shakespeare’s Folio than the stories surrounding it, and the anecdotal approach brings them vividly to life. Colourful characters, bizarre misreadings, and facetious marginalia abound – an effective conversation-starter might be to ask readers what their favourite stories are.

Some of the best sections concern the efforts of librarians to get their hands on the Folio. Smith relays the story of the Bodleian Library’s first ever fundraising campaign, an attempt to purchase the First Folio from a student (the gloriously named Gladwyn Turbutt) in 1905. The observation that “the wheels of the university ground very slowly” in securing funds hits close to home, and the details of the 2012 ‘Sprint for Shakespeare‘ Campaign to preserve and digitise the Folio are a fascinating case of history repeating itself. But my favourite story is the tale of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, the only public library to own a copy of the First Folio. Smith notes that “the dominant ownership mark… is the purple library stamp of the Birmingham Free Libraries Reference Department on several of its pages” as well as the charming detail of “the faint tread of a cat’s paws across a page of Henry VI Part 1″. Smith’s prose is clear and measured, but she takes a clear delight in relaying these minute observations, resulting in a book that feels richly detailed and slyly playful.

But while the stories told are many and varied, certain themes recur throughout. The spectre of capitalism haunts the First Folio, as the book is almost always a prop for the rich. The introduction details the first recorded purchase, by up-and-coming nobleman Sir Edward Dering, and from there we see the rise and fall of English aristocratic ownership, before American hyper-capitalists (most notably Edward Folger) move in, a battle Smith refers to as the “squirearchy” vs. the “squillionaires”. This commodity-fetishism repeatedly crops up, as do the book’s own inadequacies – printing errors abound, and Smith documents the various owners’ attempts to correct them. Smith also touches on female ownership – she points out that “attested female readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio seem more numerous than for many other early modern books” – but the theme feels a tad under-developed. One gets the feeling that the search for a “Feminist Folio” would be worth a book in its own right.

Smith’s prose is crisp and clear, but retains some of the annoyances of academic writing. Almost every chapter begins with Smith baldly telling us that ‘this chapter will explore x’, instead of getting on with exploring it already. There are also occasional typos and a variable layout design, with easily-missed slithers of the main text appearing beneath large photos, which interrupts the natural flow of the prose.

Nitpicks aside, Shakespeare’s First Folio is a marvellous bit of scholarship. Detailed without being dry, playful without being silly, it’s a well-researched, thoroughly balanced account of this ‘iconic’ book, and one which remains aware of its flaws. The Folio is riddled with typos, mistakes, dirt and marginalia. And that’s OK – more than that, it’s what makes it worth documenting. Smith concludes with the sobering reminder that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, and it’s a fitting message for this Year of Shakespeare. It’s the plays themselves that we love, and they are worth far more than the paper they are printed on.

‘Shakespeare’s First Folio’ is available to buy from Oxford University Press, RRP £19.99.

Review: The Mays 24

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 17 July 2016.

Student writers put a heart-stopping amount of time, effort and talent into their work. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they make it in to student anthologies. The Mays is far and away the most prestigious of these – for twenty-four years now they’ve been showcasing the best of Oxbridge’s creative output, and Issue 24 is no different. The anthology radiates the confidence and bravado of the best student writing. As an anthology, it’s deeply flawed – show me a student anthology that isn’t – but as a statement of intent, it’s damn powerful. As the cover hints, we’re witnessing the larval form of the great writers, poets and illustrators of tomorrow. Whatever its problems as a package, it’s worth it for the sheer potential which crackles through every page, and its best contributors have clearly long since started on the road to producing truly outstanding work .

The anthology opens with ‘Toothpaste, or, a Renaissance of Innocence’, by Isabella Luta, and there’s an appealing sense of being thrown in at the deep end. It’s a dense, rhythmic, often mesmerising stream of consciousness, capturing the post-adolescent angst of the clever and ever-so-slightly-pretentious humanities student; “I wish I could sit down in the middle of the street and look at all the houses and come up with more phrases like ‘emotionally semi-detached’.” It’s a bold and uncompromising opener, but as a story it suffers from the Dylan Thomas effect – lovely as the individual images are, the unrelenting force of them is exhausting. Other highlights include Jonathan Flieger’s ‘Facts and Histories’, which pulls some fascinating stylistic tricks with an unusual parallel paragraph layout, and Millie Brierley’s ‘Lady’, which mines astonishing pathos from the simple event of an old lady watching a nearly-destroyed VHS tape. The finest story on offer, though, is ‘Internal Logic’ by Jennifer M. Schaffer, about a creative writing teacher’s mental breakdown. It’s one of the most moving and clever things I’ve read this year, student writing or not.

While the prose offerings are strong, the poetry is more of a mixed bag. Some entries, particularly towards the end, are shockingly poor: undisciplined free verse, all-lowercase writing and the dreaded ‘untitled’ all crop up, all displaying the worst excesses of student poetry. On the positive side, Theophilus Kwek and Mary Anne Clark both turn in excellent work, Kwek with a sensitive exploration of death and taxis, and Clark with a haunting and atmospheric re-working of the Old English poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, which makes intelligent use of the original’s repetitive, alliterative structure. Similarly good are Sarah Caulfield’s ‘Lost in Translatione’, a witty treatise on Latin, and Flora De Falbe’s ‘Haikus in November’, a wonderfully sparse and frosty little poem. Chloë Carson’s ‘Teabags’ is the standout of the crop, turning a banal household ritual into the stuff of genuinely wonderful poetry. The anthology also contains visual artworks, which display a consistent quality lacking in the poetry, with some particularly interesting examples of visual storytelling from Phoebe Thomson and Sophia Bharmal.

The anthology suffers from a weak structure and inconsistent presentation. The sequencing feels slipshod, with themes picked up and dropped over handfuls of entries, making things feel cluttered and disorganised. There are some odd formatting choices, as some entries get full title pages while others don’t and the occasional shift in font size is distracting. There’s also some sketchy copyediting (including missing paragraph asterisks and typos like “whattt else to say” and “tunelessly and timpatiently ”, neither of whose entries are experimental enough to suggest stylistic choice), as well as the frequent placing of line breaks in odd places. The presentation feels surprisingly subpar, given the glossy nature of the publication – I’ve read student zines more consistently presented than this. The ambitions of the editors are clear and admirable, but someone needed to sweat the small stuff.

The messiness of the presentation is annoying, but the messiness of the writing, at its best, is liberating. The flawed nature of the anthology does not detract from the talent on display: it enhances it. It’s a good rule of thumb that any artist who is unwilling to push the envelope is not worth bothering with, so when I say the anthology is imperfect, I mean it as the highest compliment. Whatever is wrong with The Mays 24, its contributors are unafraid to fail. And it’s hard not to love them for that.

The Oxford Revue and Friends – A review

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 12 June 2016.

People who say Oxford is no laughing matter are very much not the target audience of The Oxford Revue and Friends, Saturday night’s showcase for the city’s hottest up-and-coming comics. Also featuring appearances from the Leeds Tealights and the Cambridge Footlights, as well as hot new stand-up Phil Wang, the evening felt like a promise of things to come – we were watching live what would likely end up on ‘best of’ compilation videos thirty years later. Fresh, witty, and raucously entertaining, this was a demonstration of the best UK student comedy had to offer, even if, at two hours, it perhaps needed a bit of a trim.

Phil Wang made an excellent host, cracking jokes about his own career (“it’s been six years, and I’ve just moved further up the bill”) and making easy banter with the audience. A rather mild introduction eventually gave way to some whip-smart jokes about racism (“it isn’t always black and white – there are shades of yellow too. I think I’ve just written a haiku”), and his affable stage presence helped to smooth the transitions between each act. The show’s first hour was split into two halves, with the Leeds Tealights and Cambridge Footlights respectively, before handing over to Oxford’s own after the interval.

The first half was overwhelmingly solid. The Leeds lot opened strong with a wonderfully grim bit about a girlfriend tied to the train tracks, followed by half an hour of similarly imaginative sketches. The highlight was a sketch involving a dude’s girlfriend catching him listening to Coldplay, (“It’s Arctic Monkeys!” “I would have preferred porn!). It perfectly captured the ludicrous yet pervasive power of music snobbery, and the performers delivered it with aplomb. The Varisty crowd were similarly good, with cleverly-written observational sketches about table football and improv comedy, although they were at their best when indulging their weird streak. Their best sketch was a slightly nightmarish dialogue about work experience in a chicken factory, delivered in an unnerving deadpan. Of the two acts, Leeds had the superior performers, while Cambridge had more refined and subtle sketch writers, which added up to an excellent showing overall.

The second half was a mixed bag. There was some seriously weak material towards the beginning, as some of the Revue’s newest recruits struggled with an overlong parody of student open mic nights, which had several good gags but lacked structural coherence. But once the old guard took the stage it was clear sailing right to the end, with clever scene after clever scene, including a genius riff on E4’s Skins and a Star Wars sketch worthy of Mitchell and Webb.

At two hours there were places where the show felt overlong – perhaps a ninety minute performance would have trimmed some of the fat – but this was a witty, subversive and thoroughly enjoyable evening. Well acted, creatively staged, and brimming with clever ideas, The Oxford Revue and Friends remains a highlight of the student comedy calendar.

Confessions of a student journalist

Photo: David Barker

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 10 June 2016. I was asked for a short article about how to get into student journalism, and it just ran away with me. This may be the single most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever written, but I hope it’s helpful and/or amusing to someone.

I didn’t choose the hack life. The hack life chose me, because it had a deadline that week and I was the only one available. I’ve been a student journalist for almost as long as I’ve been a student – you may remember me from such articles as the one about Christmas adverts, the one about dank memes, or the one from last October where I predicted the inevitable downfall of Donald Trump (lol). I have, in CV-speak, ‘been around the block’ – I’ve written for every section of this humble student rag, and I’ve spent over a year editing it. But now, with the herpes-like persistence of dissertation prep and the grim prospect of Finals Year looming on the horizon, it’s looking like I won’t be writing at the rate I currently am (about two or three articles a week) for much longer. It is at this point that you should imagine me as a fist-shaking supervillain: you haven’t heard the last of me! But you are, at least, less likely to hear quite so much from me in the near future. So as the fat lady winds down into the slower-tempo tunes, and the waiter begins eyeing half-empty dessert plates, I thought it might be nice to take a look back on my two years in the business, and offer advice to any potential future hacks while I’m at it. Because this torch needs passing to someone, and I did mention there was a deadline this week, didn’t I?

The first thing I learned as a student journalist, and the first lesson I offer to any trainee Oxford hack, is that nobody cares. At halfway hall this year there was an award for best student journalist. There were four options on the ballot, one of which was me, two of which were other venerable college hacks, and finally there was the joke option ‘I don’t care about student journalism’. This option won. By a considerable margin. I came second. Not that it matters. None of this matters. The vital lesson to impress upon padawan hacks is that no-one will read what they produce. The OxStu and Cherwell clog up JCR bins, the Tab is itself a giant bin, and no-one but the mad or utterly starving will go rooting through them for nourishment. The student papers are a training ground; they’re a place where aspiring writers, free from the burden of readership, can experiment, test themselves, and ultimately, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard graft, improve their abilities. No-one reads the articles we produce. And thank god for that. To assume a readership is to misunderstand the student press’s purpose; it is a place to develop a style that might earn one a readership, not a place where you are automatically given one.

The other thing a writer needs is a work ethic. You need to work for those stories that nobody will read. That means hitting deadlines, ideally several days ahead of time. Editors like people like that – it’s how they reproduce. The sort of person who will be given a Friday deadline and submit the Monday before is exactly the kind of ruthlessly efficient anal-retentive hack who is guaranteed a long and successful career in editorship. On that subject, or at least close enough for the digression not to matter too much, please stick to your word counts. When I first became an editor, literally the first article I ever commissioned came in over length. We had asked for 500 words. We were given 1,500 words, complete with a five hundred word introduction describing the precise motions involved in rolling a home-made cigarette. It was supposed to be an article about student accommodation. So it would be nice if you could stay on topic and know your limits, as it’s a nice way of not making your editors utterly hate you (he said, looking worriedly over the last six hundred and sixty-seven words). It’s also not a good idea to get overly precious about your articles – things get cut, and what gets cut is always the editor’s call. You are not being censored. You are being edited. If you don’t like it, start a blog of your own and realise all of your embarrassing mistakes forty-eight hours after the damn thing has already been uploaded for all the world to see. You have entered into this writer-editor relationship consensually, and this one of the criteria for doing so. Think the editor as a dominatrix for your articles – there’s a reason they call them ‘submissions’, after all.

On a related subject: editing. Should you ever find yourself editing a section, or, god forbid, an entire newspaper, there are two things you need to know. The first is that Adobe InDesign is the invention of the devil, sent to torture all journalists after a scandal in the 1980s where multiple tabloids accused him of being really, really, into Dungeons and Dragons. It will be the bane of your life for as long as you bear the name ‘editor’. Just accept it. The second thing is that content can be remarkably difficult to come by  – many people simply don’t have time to bash out 350 words about the new roundabout, let alone a rambling semi-coherent essay by way of industry advice. My recommended solution is simply to throw shit at the wall, and eventually a week’s worth of content will stick. Always commission more articles than you need for a given week, and be prepared to chop and change on the fly, as a certain amount of articles will inevitably be delayed or outright dropped. The shit-throwing approach also works well for getting interviews – most A-listers are too busy for the likes of you, so start plumbing the depths of United Agents. Anyone who looks even remotely interesting is probably worth a go, and in my experience the struggling authors selling through Amazon are usually a lot more interesting to talk to than the vapid million-selling thriller writer, even if his car is slightly nicer. No-one should get into student journalism for the glamour, or for the vain hope of meeting celebrities – any who do will be very disappointed very quickly, though if you buy me a drink I will tell you about the time I met Nick Jonas and accidentally told him to fuck off.

Oh god, I’ve barely started. I’ve not even mentioned the crewdates, or the office playlists, or the time I used sigil magic on a particularly difficult article. Suffice it to say that there’s a certain amount of hacking you need to learn on to job. But there’s one thing I do need to talk about before I go, and that’s the importance of networking. (No, I’m not talking about OUSU’s poor WiFi). I have met some extraordinary people on my hacking odyssey, from the editors who believed in me back in first year to my comrades in the dep ed trenches to the new hacks coming up behind me (at least some of whom are editing this very article). Know ye this, aspiring hack: you are only as good as the team that surrounds you, and I was lucky enough to consistently be surrounded by champions. It has been an absolute privilege to know and work with all of them, and I’m glad to call many of them friends. So if this article is for anyone (other than the dear readers who have made it this far), then it’s for you, my Comrades InDesign. Splendid folks, the lot of you. You were the reason I kept coming back, and you are what I’m going to miss most when I finally, at long last, bid my reluctant farewell to student journalism.

Although I should point out that I will still be coming to all your events. Especially the ones with free drinks.

Review: Twelfth Night

This article first appeared on the Oxford Opening Night website on 10 June 2016.

Garden plays are among the hardest to get right. Making a good play is difficult enough without having to worry about the weather, hay fever, and the possibility of an unscripted entrance by the local wildlife. Luckily, Worcester College’s Twelfth Night pulls through these challenges to create a light, breezy, raucously entertaining production. Complete with lutes, doublets, hoses and ruffs (not to mention a top-notch cast), Fishbowl Productions deliver all the bells and whistles of a proper Shakespearean romp, even if it occasionally suffers from over-complicated staging.

The plot is standard Shakespearean comedy. What starts out as a bit of light cross-dressing rapidly snowballs into a tale of lost family, mistaken identity, comic violence and passionate love. There are bold heroes, proud servants, drunken nobles, and a fool running around generally undermining the hell out of everybody. The plot builds to the traditional multiple marriage, and along the way there’s plenty of clever wordplay, slapstick sword fighting, and even a bit of topical humour to keep the audience engaged. The energetic pacing and bawdy jokes of the first half contrast nicely with the second half’s slightly darker tinge, especially in the scenes where the servant Malvolio is duped by arrogant nobles Belch and Aguecheek.

But while the individual scenes are well-staged, the overall structure is frustrating. This is a ‘promenade’ production, meaning different scenes play out in different locations, with the audience constantly shifting to follow the actors. This does nothing but create awkward gaps as viewers migrate, undermining the flow and fast pace crucial to good comedy. Scenes will start with half the audience still on the other side of the lawn, and the scenery occasionally blocks the audience’s view. This inattention to detail suggests a traditional stage might have better suited the production, and it would certainly have been far less distracting and inconsistent.

The cast, on the other hand, are solid across the board. Rebecca Bowen is marvellous as cross-dressing leading lady Viola, part relatable everywoman and part pantomime hero. Adam Diaper’s Malvolio effortlessly shifts between the sublime and the ridiculous, and Indyana Schnieder makes a delightful Feste, with great comic timing and a lovely singing voice. Alice Moore is wonderfully waspish as the widow Olivia, moving, Maggie Smith-like, from dry amusement to love-struck bliss. But the undoubted star of the show is one Coco Chanel, a West Highland Terrier making his stage debut as the Countess’s lapdog, who provides a number of unscripted laughs on top of generally looking cute.

Subtract the faults of its staging and Twelfth Night is damn near perfect. A calm, confident execution of an extremely tricky style, it balances a light tone with some refreshingly dark elements. The result is a satisfying evening’s entertainment, and worth seeing for the sheer raw talent on display. By turns charming, funny, poignant and edifying, Twelfth Night is the high watermark by which Oxford’s summer Shakespeares will be judged.