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The Moderate Soprano (Duke of York’s)

There is no singing, operatic or otherwise, in The Moderate Soprano, which returns to the stage following a sell-out run at Hampstead three years ago.

There is Roger Allam in a curiously bad wig (and at one point, lederhosen) as the eccentric John Christie, who made his fortune from building and decided his destiny was to build an opera house in his garden – which became Glyndebourne, England’s answer to Bayreuth.

moderate_soprano_2Nancy Carroll as Audrey Mildmay (Christie) and Roger Allam as John Christie.

The soprano of the title (not moderate as in average, but as in gentle of voice) is John’s wife, Audrey, played by Nancy Carroll, and we meet both of them in the first scene after the Second World War, when their enterprise is to be taken under the control of a Trust, ‘for the people’.

We then go back to see how Glyndebourne came to be, by the tenacity and naivete of Christie, and the help of three refugees from the Nazis: Rudolf Bing, Carl Ebert, and Franz Busch.  So a truly English institution was modelled on the German model by three specialists in the production of Mozart.

There are hints and glimpses of politics pre-war, and these are done well, but they feel a bit lost in what is essentially a light comedy, and David Hare’s play, now split into two Acts with an interval, could do with an additional trim to stop the action dragging to a stop.

Paul Jesson, a stalwart of the RSC who I last saw playing Henry VIII at Stratford-upon-Avon, is Busch, a conductor who fell foul of promoting Jews above Gentiles for their talent in his opera house in Dresden, who was driven out after his orchestra took to wearing swastikas on their lapels.

Anthony Calf (best known perhaps, as Strickland in New Tricks) is Ebert, engaging with the Christies in characteristic Teutonic arrogance, and his assistant Bing is played by the very mannered Jacob Fortune-Lloyd.

The play is complex, but I felt it did not entirely convince.  The performances are broadly good (especially Allam, who gets to the core of the character and Jesson, who convinces as a man displaced and somewhat befuddled by political progress), but there is something missing, and the decline in health of both the Christies is not fully explained, or the fact the private enterprise seems to decline during wartime.

I was also a little disappointed with the frugality of the sets and backdrops, and the dig within the script to people prepared to pay high prices to watch opera (which is also true, these days, of London theatre).

Just a reasonable two hours of theatre, not unmissable by any means, and not an obvious candidate to see out its full run to the end of June; it probably suited the small space of the Hampstead Theatre far better.

FillWyI3NTAiLCI0MjIiXQ-TMS-Nancy-Carroll-and-Roger-Allam-Photo-Piers-Foley-Small2Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam visit Glyndebourne. Photo credit Piers Foley.


Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s)

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both of the same Royal blood, both anointed monarchs, and both passionate.

This production plays with the similarities and differences between the Queens by having both leading actresses playing one or the other parts on the toss of a coin.

Yesterday afternoon Lia Williams played Mary and Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth. Mary was quick, impulsive, frustrated, and every inch a queen even when imprisoned in bare walls.

Elizabeth is proud and aloof, commanding her courtiers with a click and primping her appearance with a compact mirror. A public virgin she privately romps with the duplicitous Leicester (John Light) while toying with a promise of marriage from France.

Mary, though, three times a wife, a mother, a lover. Also with Leicester, which may be her downfall, and his. She seethes at her treatment and long imprisonment when seeking asylum – this play is on the side of her innocence – but equally she seeks Elizabeth’s acknowledgement as an equal.

The meeting never happened in history but here it works well within the machinations of state and politics. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is imperious enough to recover quickly following the shock of seeing the woman who has plagued her and caused her endless worry standing before her in the garden at Fotheringay.

Mary’s gamble, hoping for the mercy of another monarch, causes her to move quickly towards execution; a misfire in which Elizabeth’s pride is worked on by a weasley Burleigh, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic yet tradition-bound Talbot (a very strong performance from Michael Byrne).

The slight amusement of early scenes evaporates in Act Four as Mary’s fate is sealed and her execution looms. A Catholic, she is allowed her last communion and to walk to the block in the company of her nurse (Carmen Munroe).

The scene where Elizabeth is garbed in her white face, boned corset and dress, pearls, ruff and wig, is juxtaposed with Mary reduced to a simple shift, majesty removed but morally victorious. It’s an emotional piece which is riveting and accompanied by a new song by Laura Marling.

Robert Icke directs Friedrich Schiller’s play, in a sparse set with modern dressed characters, an explosive script, and two very strong women who are closer together than they might think.

Mary gains a strange sense of freedom while Elizabeth remains uneasy and trapped with the guilt of her regicide. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.


The Dresser (Duke of York’s)

Ronald Harwood’s play, inspired in part by his own experience as dresser to the actor-manager Donald Wolfit, creaks a little these days but this is still a very enjoyable revival.

dresser

‘Sir’ is the leading man in a touring company (‘next week, God willing, we will be in Eastbourne’), who, along with his ‘lady wife’, presents Shakespeare in a haphazard way to an audience who are probably as bored with the proceedings as those in the company (‘cripples, old men, and nancy boys’).  In this version of the play Sir is portrayed by Ken Stott, and at first I thought he was a little miscast, but as the play progressed he grew into the role and by the end was really rather effective.

In the main role of Norman, the dresser, Reece Shearsmith is wonderfully waspish and camp as the man who has been responsible for the cheering up of his charge and the ‘washing of his foul underpants’ for some sixteen years.  This man sees the lie of the land and realises that the game is up, and yet he still has to play-act just as much as those on stage.  His timing is faultless and his acting cuts straight to the heart, whether making us laugh with his constant refrain of ‘I had a friend’, or touching us with his final scenes of loneliness and desperation.

dresser2

Supporting roles go to Simon Rouse, as the doddery Thornton, who for years has soldiered on in the smallest of parts, but tonight has to play the Fool; Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship, now too old to care anything for her career or her sham marriage; and Selina Cadell as the quietly devoted but steely stage manager Madge.

I would like to give a nod to the set and staging too, Simon Higlett’s revolving backstage and wings, and Sean Foley’s direction, which is spot on, whether in the intimate two-handed scenes between Stott and Shearsmith, or the amusing opening of ‘King Lear’ (‘methinks I saw the King’) or the later storm, requiring all hands on deck.  In fact, Lear is the perfect depiction of the backstage drama, too, with Norman as the Fool, who although ever present, finds he has ‘slipped out of sight’ when he reads Sir’s book dedication.


Goodnight Mr Tom (Duke of York’s Theatre)

Michelle Margorian’s 1981 novel about evacuees in Dorset and one in particular, William Beech, has become a classic, and there was a television adaptation with John Thaw as Tom which screened in 1998 which was well-received.

In this small-scale but affecting production, we have David Troughton as the grouchy reclusive widower who takes in the nervous and abused William and both of them transform as their friendship grows along with those around them (including a kindly doctor, a newly-married teacher, and a spirited Jewish boy called Zach whose parents are in the theatre).

This is an old-fashioned tale with a simple message, but is well-told, and manages to be quite chilling in places (William’s insane Bible-bashing mother has had an illegitimate child and leaves her to die, causing the boy considerable mental distress).

David Wood’s play, directed by Angus Jackson, has been revived a few times, but still works.  As the boys, Joe Reynolds as Will (we think), and Sonny Kirby as Zach, were excellent, in quite difficult roles.  And I have to mention the marvellous puppet work which not only evokes squirrels and hedge-sparrows, but also Mr Tom’s dog Sammy, who came to life in the expert hands of Elisa de Grey.

I also loved the sets with train posters and wartime rationing tips dominating, and this even transferred into the programme, which has period advertising throughout.


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