Posts Tagged ‘ Upstairs at the Gatehouse ’

Semele, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Hampstead Garden Opera
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

Semele Handel

Picture: LaurentCompagnon

OperaUpClose may be dominating the headlines with their re-imaginings of Bohème and Butterfly but in Highgate there is another fringe opera company, who play with an altogether straighter bat. James Hurley’s production of Semele for Hampstead Garden Opera sticks to Handel’s scenario – and is all the better for it.

The text, by William Congreve, tells the classical story of Semele, who catches the eye of Jove, king of the Olympian gods. He transforms into an eagle and whisks her away to Mount Olympus where they share “endless pleasure”. Ahem. Jove’s celestial wife, Juno, however, becomes jealous. She sneaks into the palace where Semele is hidden and persuades her that she will become immortal if she sees Jove in his godly form. In fact, she will die.

The cast is almost entirely made up of postgraduate music students and the singing is universally of a high standard. Tom Verney as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Prince Athamas, Semele’s mortal fiancé, is a particular highlight. He trips lightly up and down Handel’s coloratura as if they’ve just occurred to him. The central role is sung voluptuously by Robyn Parton, who tackles the challenging part confidently. She holds every eye in the house as she sulks like a child or pouts playfully at the king of the gods. Jove is sung by tenor Zachary Devin with pinpoint clarity and Kathryn Walker’s excellent Juno is all cartoon anger and feel-my-wrath vocal flourishes.

In Hurley’s production the scenes in the mortal realm are set in something approximating to the 1950s but for Mount Olympus, white dominates. In Rachel Szmukler’s design the back wall is hung with strips of white polystyrene and the chorus of spirits wear costumes of bubble wrap. Semele is given a bubble wrap dress which results in some comic popping noises during the rather intimate scenes between her and Jove. This design comes into its own, however, in one of the closing scenes in which Semele storms around doing her best impression of an ireful goddess as she rips down the gauze and white drapes.

Oliver-John Ruthven directs the musical side of things well from the harpsichord (yes, a harpsichord in a pub!) but there is a sense that the musical director’s vision is at odds with the director’s. For example, Athamas pleads with Semele’s sister “do not shun me” while she is, in fact, clinging to him. Similarly, the opening action – before the overture begins – doesn’t add anything to the performance and is incomprehensible. Semele was written as an oratorio so is short on dramatic action, but Hurley over-compensates for this with too many gimmicks which tend to distract from rather than complement the very enjoyable singing.

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The Magic Flute, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Upstairs at the GatehouseThe Magic Flute, Mozart
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Translation: Stephen Fry
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

With panpipes, enchanted bells and a family tree more complex than any Shakespeare ever penned, The Magic Flute is utter nonsense. But that hasn’t stopped it becoming one of Mozart’s best-loved works. Hampstead Garden Opera’s production, directed by James Hurley, deals with the sillness and the childish japes, much more successfully than the darker parts of the tale.

Prince Tamino is rescued from an evil demon (it’s a serpent in the original) by three ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. Said nocturnal monarch asks Tamino to rescue her daughter, Pamina, whom she says has been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro. Tamino, on seeing a picture of Pamina, falls instantly in love – as only opera heroes can. He is accompanied on his quest by a feather-brained bird catcher, Papageno – who provides every laugh of the evening.

William Balkwill’s Tamino is all chinos and cut-glass RP: Balkwill does a good turn as the dull but nice “Prince Charming” – though his voice sounds a touch strained at times. Papageno, played by Samuel Queen, gets all the good lines in an otherwise surprisingly pedestrian libretto by Stephen Fry. What Queen lacks in richness of tone, he makes up for in charisma. A nod should go to costume designer Madeleine Millar for the brilliant bird-patterned “onesies” (an adult baby-grow) sported by Papageno and Papagena.

But the men are outshone by the women in this production. Viki Hart, as the Queen of the Night dazzles with pin-point coloratura and a beautifully luscious sound. The Queen’s famous aria is without doubt one of the highlights of the evening, sparking calls of “Bravo” from the audience. As her daughter, Pamina, Raphaela Papadakis is endearing and moving by turns. Her mellow sound proves particularly poignant in singing of Pamina’s pain when she thinks Tamino no longer loves her. Elsewhere, the three ladies (Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King) are impressive.

Several motifs have been added to Mozart’s original by Hurley: a doll’s house, a voodoo Barbie and Ken (probably not coming to a store near you soon), vast quantities of alcohol and a giant toy box. The voodoo dolls create some arresting scenes, proving particularly effective as a literalisation of the Queen of the Night’s psychological manipulation of her daughter. The doll’s house, however, is more perplexing – I think the story is supposed to be taking place inside it, though I’m not sure.

The Dionysus Ensemble, under the baton of Musical Director Oliver-John Ruthven, has some shaky moments and it occasionally feels as if they aren’t quite working with the singers but parallel to them. Generally, Hurley’s production rattles too quickly over the more complex plot points, making the story hard to follow for those unfamiliar with the tale and it loses momentum during the “Masonic” scenes in Sarastro’s court. But there are some stunning moments in this production – courtesy of a couple of true stars-in-waiting.

Runs until 14 November

This review first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

The Drowsy Chaperone, review

Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Dir: Racky Plews
Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison

“Fun. That’s all this show is – fun.” So declares the anonymous narrator of The Drowsy Chaperone. And what great fun it is.

This is the musical-lover’s musical: all knowing references and witty in-jokes.  The self-consciously logic-lite plot centres on the impending marriage between Broadway star, Janet Van de Graaff (Amy Diamond) and an oil tycoon’s son, Robert Martin (Ashley Day). The scene is prohibition America – all feathers and flappers, high-kicks and low morals. All the stock musical theatre characters are there: a butler and a rich widow, the cigar-chewing producer, a squeaky chorus girl, a couple of Gangsters and of course, the drowsy – or rather drunken – chaperone. The show flopped in the West End a few years ago – possibly for the precise reason that audiences are enjoying it Upstairs at the Gatehouse now: its complete irreverence.

Racky Plews’ production is unapologetic theatrical candyfloss: as the “man in chair” explains at the beginning, this is the musical he puts on when he’s feeling “blue”. Matthew Lloyd Davies as our armchair guide is perfect: a cardigan-wearing, American everyman. Twitchy to the point of neurotic (with shades of Woody Allen), he delights the audience with his unpredictable outbursts and super-fan enthusiasm.

Within the musical itself, Over The Rainbow’s Amy Diamond plays the affianced showgirl – torn between the glamour of Broadway and…well, the glamour of marrying an oil tycoon. Diamond has a beautiful voice and should be admired for singing some of the show’s sillier lines with a straight face (“I’ve put a monkey on a pedestal”). Ashley Day, as the groom, wows with his Astaire-era footwork and pulls off the Prince Charming role with ease.

Siobhan McCarthy in the strangely unimportant title role does a good line is faded  glamour while Michael Howe as her hot-blooded Italian lothario, Aldolpho, provides plenty of laughs. Although as Lloyd Davies’ “man in chair” admits – he is a bit over the top. Will Stokes and Jo Parsons are great fun as two undercover gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (an idea which springs entirely, I suspect, from the authors’ desire to use the phrase “just des(s)erts”).

Martin Thomas’ set design is both witty and impressive and the live band, directed by Tim Whiting, is solid throughout.

A show so thick with self-knowledge is difficult to criticise: each slow scene is apologised for or even fast-forwarded over by our guide. A couple of the numbers veer even beyond the ridiculous (“monkey on a pedestal”) and occasionally punch-lines are swallowed.

This musical won’t change lives – but it is irresistibly witty and a wonderful couple of hours’ escapism.

Runs until 31 October

This review first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

“I don’t want to show off” from the West End performance in 2007

Pub opera: Pint, Peanuts and Puccini

This feature first appeared on The Public Reviews website here

“Opera has died and we need to perform CPR on it.” So declared Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the artistic director of London’s newest (and smallest) opera house last week. The King’s Head pub theatre in Islington – London’s oldest fringe venue – has just announced that it will be switching permanently to musical productions, starting with Rossini’s Barber of Seville on 6 October.

The King’s Head theatre opened in 1970 and countless esteemed thesps have treaded its boards: Kenneth Branagh, Alan Rickman, Rupert Graves, Joanna Lumley. So why, after all this time, has the venue decided to change tack?

Of course, The King’s Head isn’t the first fringe venue to switch actors for altos – nor is Spreadbury-Maher a beginner in the field. As the artistic director of The Cock Tavern Theatre, he recently directed OperaUpClose’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème which has passed the 100 performance benchmark and is now playing at the Soho Theatre. Yet nothing about opera as a form seems to lend itself to the small-scale: gestures are exaggerated, emotions are deliberately overstated and opera singers are trained to project their voices to fill cavernous opera houses. Why, then, has the pub opera phenomenon taken off?

One obvious reason is the ticket prices. Jonathan Miller – whose Cosí fan tutte is currently playing to packed audiences at Covent Garden – is one of the new patrons for The Little Opera House at The King’s Head (along with Mark Ravenhill and Joanna Lumley). Speaking to the Observer recently he said “We are living in a completely unfair society. Many people are very underprivileged in this country, while there are these huge ornamental opera productions being staged. There is something immoral about it.”

Notoriously, opera-goers are white, wealthy, middle-class and middle-aged. And with prices at Covent Garden soaring into the hundreds, it’s hardly surprising that younger people are put off. Tickets for Spreadbury-Maher’s Barber of Seville, on the other hand, are £15 (£13 for concessions): startlingly affordable, as opera goes.

But these productions are not just popular with audiences: pub opera can provide a much needed training ground for young opera singers. While up-and-coming actors have been able to cut their teeth on the fringe scene for years in London, there are limited opportunities for singers – many of whom have studied on opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama or the Royal Academy of Music.

The King’s Head is not entirely altruistic, of course – pub opera is good business at the moment. Highly trained, enthusiastic, young musicians are willing to perform great music for miniscule fees. And a swathe of new austerity-age audiences are not willing to pay the prices demanded by the big venues.

Upstairs at the Gatehouse is an already established pub opera house and Oliver-John Ruthven will be the musical director for Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the venue from 4 November. For Ruthven, pub opera gives the audience the chance to view opera in a “microscopic way” while the informal setting “allows for a far greater potential for the audience’s world to mix with that of the performers.” Jonathan Miller agrees: the setting is all important. “In doing operas on a very intimate scale, in front of an audience of a hundred at the most, you renovate them.” Miller wants to strip opera of the window-dressing: the gilded venues, the symphony orchestra, the “ridiculous” tradition of dressing up to watch a production.

It’s worth remembering, however, that operas were composed for the gilded venues and symphony orchestras. And while La Bohème’s subject matter chimes with the “everyday” surroundings – above a pub, with a slightly dodgy piano – other works might not fit in so seamlessly. Oliver-John Ruthven warns that this new trend won’t suit all such works: “Not all operas are suited to pub venues because their scale is simply too much to compress into such small spaces.” It remains to be seen how well Mozart’s fantastical The Magic Flute will work in a small venue, or whether the prim and polished characters of Rossini’s Barber of Seville will look impossibly out of place in a room behind the bar.

For now, there can be little doubt that pub opera is in the ascendant. Whether the trend will continue beyond the current “age of austerity” will depend on whether these productions can be more than simply opera in a small space. Pub productions must provide a different experience of opera. It can’t just be a case of Puccini with a pint.

The Barber of Seville previews at The King’s Head, Islington from 5 October; 0844 477 1000. The Magic Flute opens at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate on 4 November; 020 8340 3488.

Theatrigirl’s Weekly Highlights

As the winter chill begins to set in, here’s Theatrigirl’s list of reasons to be cheerful this week. There’s Hamlet at the National, whimsical fun at Upstairs at the Gatehouse and Anthony Sher in Arthur Miller at the Tricycle. Brave the cold and wrap yourself up in a good play…

  • Or You Could Kiss Me, Cottesloe Theatre, National TheatreInteresting new puppetry piece by Neil Bartlett about how to say goodbye: an “intimate history of two very private lives.” The puppets have been created by the same team as War Horse.

    Previews from 28 Sept

  • Burn My Heart, New Diorama TheatreAdapted from Beverley Naidoo’s novel of the same name, this production, by theatre companies Trestle and Blindeye, is part of Black History Month. The play is set during the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya and focuses on the destruction wrought by the conflict on the lives of two young boys.

    28 Sept-2 Oct

  • Hamlet, Olivier Theatre, National TheatreHamlet is this season’s “must-have” – the Crucible is also staging a production at the moment and the National have commissioned a “prequel” to Shakespeare’s work (The Prince of Denmark) which will open next week. Rory Kinnear takes the title role in Nicholas Hytner’s production in the NT’s Olivier Theatre.

    Previews from 30 Sept

  • Broken Glass, The TricycleAnthony Sher stars in Arthur Miller’s tale of guilt, love and tragedy in 1930s Brooklyn.

    Previews from 30 Sept

  • The Drowsy Chaperone, Upstairs at the GatehouseA musical within a musical. A self-conscious parody. An anonymous narrator introduces and guides the audience through his favourite musical: The Drowsy Chaperone from 1928. Frivolous frippery.

    23 Sept-31 Oct