Dirty Dusting at Devizes Arts Festival

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Dirty Dusting, a tale of three elderly cleaners threatened with redundancy who start up a sex chat line, hit the stage at the Corn Exchange on Wednesday night.  The play premiered in South Shields in 2003, and is currently performed by Crissy Rock, of Benidorm fame, Leah Bell, Dolores Porretta, and Andrew Green.

The audience were vociferously amused from the outset, and by the end were overtaken with mirth.  After all, sex is funny, and we British do like our innuendo.  Think seaside postcards and Carry On.  Think Les Dawson and Mrs. Brown’s Boys.  Toss in a bit of slapstick and stick slapping and more references to coming than in the Festival publicity, and there have you have it.  Dirty Dusting.  A riotous smut fest.

Leah Bell as Glad (‘all over’) aka Madonna is the star of the show, and it is the late flowering of her sexuality and physical comedy that provides the most laughs.  Crissy Rock is the worldly wise and weary Elsie (Kylie), Dolores Porretta plays Olive (Marilyn), whose sexless marriage was once punctuated by an affair with a Scoutmaster called Arthur, and Andrew Green is the arrogant boss with a furtive secret.

It’s a whole new world (hole, even) for the Telephone Belles from the minute the phone rings.  There are misunderstandings about water sports, references to hand puppets, and revelations relating to crotchless panties.  It’s a steep learning curve.  Good times for Glad, as she and the previously disappointing (‘You could time an egg by him’) Billy reap the rewards of her re-energised libido, but bad times for the boss (domestic suction devices; don’t do this at home, kids) as his unusual fetish is exposed.  The story ends with the ladies emerging victorious and the whole cast appearing in comedy S&M gear.

I’ve never heard an audience laugh so much and so often in the Corn Exchange.   People absolutely loved it.  They spilled out of the Ceres Hall with happy smiles, saying things like ‘Brilliant, really clever’, ‘A laugh’, and ‘Best thing I’ve seen for a long time’.  To see that people enjoyed our Festival event so much was wonderful.

I laughed twice.  Something just didn’t sit right for me.  In the interval I talked to Lesley Mills, who voiced her concerns about the clichéd negative portrayal of older women and their sexuality in the show.  We both found a couple of the jokes a bit gross, particularly the one about things dangling out of the aforesaid crotchless thingies.  Which surprises me because neither of us are prudes, and I have a reputation for mildly vulgar poetry.  We also struggled to place the play in a particular time.  The characters seemed to come from the 70s, but even though the phones were old fashioned there were references to Google, credit card payments, and the odious Trump.

‘You realise it was written by men’ said a gentleman from the Festival committee, quietly.

Get over yourself, some might say.  It’s just a bit of fun.  There’s nothing serious about it.  Lighten up a bit, for goodness sake!  Fair enough, but this is 2018, and we are currently revising our view on what is and isn’t acceptable regarding what and how things are said about whom.  If this play had been written in, or firmly set in, the 70s, I would have understood it as being of its time and enjoyed it more.  But it wasn’t.  And it wasn’t ironic either.  Which left me feeling slightly uncomfortable and confused.

Sorry to be a party pooper, people.

But I never did like Mrs Brown’s Boys.

© Gail Foster 17th June 2018

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Trio HLK and Dame Evelyn Glennie at the Devizes Arts Festival; a review

Trio HLK and Dame Evelyn Glennie at the Corn Exchange on Sunday 3rd June 2018

Dame Evelyn Glennie is talking to me about listening.

Devizes Arts Festival have brought some quality acts to Devizes over the years, but to me this really takes the biscuit.  Before I came out I listened to her leading a thousand drummers in a collaboration with Underworld at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2012.  This is the image I have in my head of Evelyn, as some wild goddess with drumsticks raised, summoning awesomeness.

There’s nothing grand about her.  She’s quiet, and dignified, and intense.  She unloads her own marimba, a glorious enormous church organ of a xylophone, and the band and sound guys help her unload her drums and shiny ‘What’s that?’ ‘A bell tree.’  I am in awe of her instruments almost as much as I am in awe of her.

She laughs when I tell her about my awe and is happy to answer my questions.  Later in June she’ll be performing with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a double concerto for percussion and oboe in honour of Thea Musgrave, and is currently working on a musical score for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Troilus and Cressida.  Other projects include archiving all the musical instruments she has at home in order to establish a listening centre.

She’s all about the listening, is Evelyn.  She’s on a mission to get the world to listen.

This is her fourth gig with Trio HLK, and she’s excited about it.

Trio HLK are an innovative ensemble comprised of Richard Harrold, keyboards, Richard Kass, drums and percussion, and Ant Law, electric guitar.  They’re a pleasant bunch of blokes.  ‘So talented’ says Evelyn, ‘so creative, and shy’.   They tell me that they came together on New Year’s Day, 2015, as a result of an ‘arranged marriage band date’, and that they like to make rhythmic illusions and impossible rhythms.  One of them points out the tiny symbol of the blivet, the Devil’s tuning fork, on their album cover.  ‘Like that’ he says.

Andy the busker playing on the stairs as people filter in excitedly.  Anticipation is high.

The instruments are waiting.

When it comes to words for sound and defining musical genres I am lost.  In the interval and afterwards, people who know about such things talk about interesting textures and marvel at Kass’s polyrhythms.  ‘It’s prog rock, really’, ‘It’s avant-garde in all aspects’, ‘It’s avant-garde jazz’, ‘Is it, though?’  No one seems able to tell me exactly what kind of jazz is being played.  It’s a mystery.

I’m transported from the minute Trio HLK take the stage.  ‘It’s all about them, really’ says Evelyn.  She’s enjoying working with them, developing the music together, seeing what happens, enjoying the ‘unexpected, surprising, unwanted things’ that arise within the structure.

‘It’s far too early to categorise it as jazz’ she says.

Out of the silence comes sound.

Gentle, interlocking, broken and unbroken melodies, ‘refracted through our prism’ say Trio HLK.  How they concentrate on one another as they play.

And then Evelyn comes on.

With the exception of her stunning solo on the halo drum, it quickly becomes clear that Evelyn is ‘just’ one of the band.  It’s all about the collaboration, this.  It’s not just about Evelyn.

Therefore anyone expecting The Evelyn Glennie show is disappointed.

And anyone expecting a night of the kind of music never before heard in these parts is delighted.

I know nothing about jazz, and I’m a poet, so for me it went like this.

Bells in oceans, rocks knocking, windchimes on mountainous heights, stars singing, cool corridors of monasteries, pianos in cathedrals, ribbons of sound and light weaving together and coming apart, weaving together and coming apart again, gongs falling down wells, soft, silvery streams, and the incessant beat of the universal drum.

And all in the Corn Exchange.

It’s moving.  I cry a bit.  It’s strange.  The music has form, and is also formless.  It’s spectacular.  I’m mesmerised by Evelyn and her drumsticks and intensity.

At the back of the stage, in the stairwell, I dance to the drum.

‘I’ll be behind the curtain, taking pictures,’ I had said earlier, ‘in case you hear a sound’.

Later Evelyn said she saw me, out of the corner of her eye, as I took photographs from the floor underneath the marimba.  ‘I thought it was funny’ she said.

(I have taken photographs of Evelyn Glennie.  You may take me now, Lord.)

Evelyn and the guys come out at the end to sign the album ‘Standard Time’ and talk affably with the public.  Martin has brought his drum skin for Evelyn to sign, and she strums her fingers on his bodhrán, listening carefully to the sound that it makes.  She chats to Vicky, who apparently sang with her in a choir decades ago.  For an icon she’s very approachable.

She and the guys are just very serious about sound.

And the verdict of the Festival audience?

Some people loved it all.  Most people loved some of it.  A few people loved it not at all.  Bit progressive and unusual for some folk.  Too edgy.  ‘Interesting’, ‘Bit jangly’, ‘Not my cup of tea’, ‘Would like to have seen more of Evelyn’, ‘What I really loved was the communication between them’, ‘Great sound quality’, ‘Fascinating’, ‘Amazing’.

The serious jazz officianados and poetic types in the audience are blown away.

The Devizes Arts Festival is privileged to have been able to bring an act of this calibre to Devizes.

Dame Evelyn Glennie and Trio HLK.  Thank you so much for coming.

And for letting us listen.

© Gail Foster 5th June 2018

 

Ann Widdecombe at the Corn Exchange, Devizes; a review

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Ann Widdecombe at the Devizes Arts Festival

On Thursday night, the Devizes Arts Festival kicked off with ‘An Audience with Ann Widdecombe.’

Ann is famous for her 23-year career in Parliament, her appearance in Strictly Come Dancing, and her right wing Victorian views.

In her rider she has asked for a glass of water and a sandwich.

She arrives on time, sporting a rather fashionable mustard coloured jumper.  It is immediately apparent that she is not up for wasting syllables on irrelevant chat.  She’s come to do the job, and flog some books, and entertain.  ‘She’s dead professional’ says one of the new boys at the Town Hall, as we watch her cracking on with the soundcheck.

The doors open to the public, and Ann appears, dressed as a Victorian opera singer.  The effect of the light catching her ash blonde hair and sequins is startling.

She’s up for signing books before and after the show, and in the interval.  She’s written seven; five fiction, including a self-published detective novel, one autobiography, and a religious book about penance.   She’s polite with the public.  She makes herself accessible.  She’s happy to have photos taken, happy to be in selfies, happy to nip upstairs for a random appearance on Fantasy Radio.  She’s a good sport when something goes wrong (don’t ask).  ‘Always see the funny side’ she says.  Phew.  But she’s not touchy feely at all (and why should she be?).  She’s brisk, and formal.  And there’s something of the…what about her?

Ann is, on stage, quite funny.  ‘Do blondes have more fun?  All I can say is that I noticed men were talking to me much-more-slowly’ she quips.  She kicks off with talking about her recent celebrity appearances, or ‘non-political television’, as she calls it.  She doesn’t do social media.  Television is, in her view, still a good way of reaching the masses.

When Ann left Parliament in 2010, she drew a line.  She was an ‘Admiralty child’.

‘The subconscious lesson of that childhood,’ she says, explaining how she moved from school to school, constantly having to make new friends, ‘was that when something’s gone, it’s gone.’

‘The day I left Parliament,’ she says, ‘I realised that I no longer owed anyone any duty of time and dignity.’

Friends warned her off Strictly, worried that if she did it she would lose her gravitas.

‘What would I want it for?’ says Ann.

Ann does panto these days and has worked with Basil Brush.  She disagrees with hunting, doesn’t agree with abortion, and is in favour of the death penalty.  She’s said Yes to Graham Norton, and No to Jonathan Ross.  She seems a bit thick with Anton from Strictly.  ‘The less time you spend with your feet on the floor the better’ – Anton.  People laugh a lot.

After the interval, a cheeky glass of water and some more book signing, Ann returns for a Q&A.  Questions are, in the main, unchallenging.  Would you pay £16 to heckle Ann Widdecombe?  Probably not.  This is the meat and bones of Ann’s talk for me, and probably for the lady outside who said ‘She’s brilliant, erudite, and feisty, but I don’t feel she’s giving her best, and I’m really not that interested in Big Brother.’

Ann answers all the questions.  Sort of.  She’s up for it, that’s for sure.  Assertive is the word.

She blames the closure of libraries on the internet.  Margaret Thatcher was, while Ann had huge respect for her, ‘a bit remote’.  She talks about her memories of Thatcher and Major walking through the lobbies, how the Red Sea parted for Thatcher whilst Major would stop and have a friendly chat.  She has a Ten Commandments story.  She thinks the quality of MPs in Parliament has gone down due to selection procedures, and that governments suffer from oppositions taking opposition habits into government, and governments taking government habits onto the opposition benches.  She voted for Brexit.  She says she said the ‘something of the night about him’ thing to a couple of people and it just caught on.  She really doesn’t agree with abortion and thinks that there is divisive political skullduggery going on in relation to the issue.  She has always been comfortable with herself.  50 Shades of Grey is ‘quite the dirtiest book I haven’t quite read’.  She had 800 people on her Christmas list when she was in Parliament.  Ann talks about changing demands on the NHS in relation to new scientific medical discoveries, and how Bevan’s original vision is out of odds with the current demand for services.

‘What would we want the NHS to look like if we started it from scratch?’ she asks.

A bit more book signing and ‘bon homie’, and Ann is ready for the off.  People have enjoyed her, and if they didn’t they kept their opinions to themselves.  She’s done everything she signed up for.  She didn’t eat the sandwiches.

‘Good luck with your Festival!’ she says, as she walks out the door.

Something of the…what about her?

Something of the Right, obviously.  But also something I can’t quite put my finger on.

Ann is working it, and good luck to her.  The woman has balls, even if her views are objectionable.  She answers to no-one.  She’s a good speaker.  She’s intelligent.  There are things to admire about her, for sure.  But she is a bit odd.  A bit chilly.  There’s a wall around her.  Maybe you have to build such walls when you are a child being moved from pillar to post, or when you are trying to hold your own as a woman in Parliament, or when you have your knickers showing in the celebrity spotlight.

Who can say.

© Gail Foster 1st June 2018

The Wharf Theatre presents; ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’

Hahahahaha!

Seriously, though…The Wharf’s production of Sondheim’s first musical, directed by Liz Sharman, is hilarious.  Based on the farces of the Roman playwright, Plautus, it first hit Broadway in 1962.  Don’t expect high art or political correctness.  From the first number, ‘Comedy Tonight’ (‘Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone: a comedy tonight’), it’s clear that this is nothing but a fast-moving, light-hearted, old-fashioned, slightly dodgy, slapstick, pun-filled, fun-fest.

The set is beautifully painted, in authentic colours, with quirky touches.  Three doors, as is traditional with this play.  Not much space for the action, but perfect for the running about, in and out of dusty Roman windows, requirements of the show

It’s the story of how Pseudolus (Jonathon West), a slave of Rome in 200BC, buys his freedom using his knowledge of human nature, the help of hapless fellow slave Hysterium (Chris Underwood), and all other devious means at his disposal.  He lives in the house of Senex (Chris Smith) and Domina (Lesley Scholes), and their son, Hero (Tyler Bartlett), in the same hood as Erronius (John Craig), a befuddled ancient, and Lycus (John Winterton), a lascivious brothel-keeper.  The young Hero has his eye on Philia (Hayley Baxter), a young and as yet unbesmirched courtesan, and agrees that Pseudolus will have his freedom if he can get the twee couple together.  Other characters are the imperious soldier Milos Gloriosus (Nick Swift), various smiley Proteans, and (Good God, is that Miss Whiplash (Jemma Gingell)?) a trio of silent, but enthusiastic, fan wielding prostitutes.

The action gets sillier as the play progresses, and the web of lies that Pseudolus has woven begins to fall apart.  Just a bit of mare’s sweat, and it will all work out.  Maybe if we pretend she’s dead it will be fine.  Maybe if we all dress up as other people that will do the trick.  Not.  Quick song?  Go on, then.

This is a high energy show, with a lot of quick changes and movements.  I can’t fault the choreography, or the superb comic timing, but Sondheim only gets a B for the songs.  ‘Comedy Tonight’ is pretty catchy, and ‘Lovely’ is memorable, although that is partly due to Hayley Baxter (sweet voice, well-played coyness) and Chris Underwood’s interpretations.  Victoria Warren, Musical Director, played the score.  Lot of sharps and flats, apparently.  Difficult keys.

Acting awards?  Lesley Scholes (of course) as the bossy (‘carry my bust with pride’) Roman matron, Hayley Baxter and Tyler Bartlett for doing impossibly cute with straight faces, Jemma Gingell for bravery, Jonathon West for holding it all together, and the entire cast for being on it like a car bonnet whilst appearing to be having the most fun ever.

But it’s the performances of Chris Underwood, John Craig, and Nick Swift, that have me absolutely kissing myself.  The part of the camp and nervous slave Hysterium is the most challenging in the play, and Chris is awesome in the role.  His renditions of the anxiety song ‘I’m Calm’, and ‘Lovely’, are a triumph, and his drag shenanigans are a wonder to behold (clearly a career in modelling beckons).

John Craig plays the part of the doddery, partially sighted Erronius to perfection (John Craig, John Craig, he was witty, he was vague), and Nick Swift, as the arrogant soldier, dominates the stage (in a good way) with his enormous presence, booming voice, and massive wrath.

I haven’t laughed so much or so loudly in public since, well we won’t talk about that.  It was the dress rehearsal, so there was only a small audience, but everyone was in stitches from the outset, and by the end a few of us were incandescent with mirth.  ‘One of the funniest things I have ever seen at The Wharf’ (and he’s seen and been in a few) said Lewis Cowen.  ‘The funniest show I’ve ever been a part of’ (and he’s seen and been in a few too) said Chris Underwood.  I laughed till my stomach hurt, and I’m still laughing now.

When I’d recovered from the wild exhilaration of it all, and had enthused sufficiently, I had a word with Liz Sharman (well done, that woman!) about political correctness.  Liz said that she dealt with the whole prostitute thing by making the male characters seem silly in their dealings with them, and that she didn’t cut anything from the script.  I’d expected the show to be much ruder, and camper, and more along the lines of the (Ooh Matron!) Carry On films.  Undoubtedly some might find the very fact of prostitutes offensive, but apart from a bust, a whip, a fart joke and a few tacky comments, I found the humour quite polite, and the general feel of the whole thing quite…innocent.  Not much to upset your average four-year old, or your Gran.  But then it’s an American show, and I am hardly Mary Whitehouse.

And after all, these things were acceptable in the 60s.  And 70s.  And 200BCs…

I enjoyed this show so much that I’m giving it ten out of ten.

Hahahahaha!

Seriously.

© Gail Foster 28th April 2018

Devizes Musical Theatre; Jekyll and Hyde

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On Tuesday night I went to the dress rehearsal of Devizes Musical Theatre’s production of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, at Dauntsey’s School.

‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is a contemporary pop rock musical, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.  Stevenson’s book was published in 1886, during the decade when Freud began to practice, and Victorian dinner tables buzzed with talk of psychology, new scientific discoveries, sex, and religion, in the light of new understanding.  The musical was written by Leslie Bricusse, with score by Frank Wildhorn, and first hit the stage in 1990, before ending up on Broadway in 1997.

You know the story, right?  Scientist gets confused about good and evil, as you do, and a bit bothered about his dark desires, and makes a major blunder getting his hit together, as a consequence of which one part of himself behaves really badly and things go rapidly downhill.  Oh yes, and it’s an exploration of duality within the human psyche and of what can happen when the ‘natural’ instincts within man are allowed to go unchecked.  Take some dignitaries, a mad scientist, a dodgy potion, a sweet girl, a bad girl, a few hypocritical society types, and a brace of prostitutes, chuck ‘em all together and…what could possibly go wrong?  ‘Murder, Murder’, that’s what…

Devizes Musical Theatre have got a bit serious over the years, since their inception in 1965, and the Dauntsey’s stage is the best in the area.  This show is directed by Matt Dauncey, with a 16 piece orchestra conducted by Susan Braunton.  I know that I’m enjoying a show when the thought of an egg sandwich doesn’t cross my mind till afterwards, so we’ll see how we go.

The set is minimal, with dramatic lighting to emphasise the suspense and Gothic horror of it all, and, whilst ‘comments on style should never be made by those who have none’, the Victorian costumes (Jen Warren) are authentic and beautiful.  It is my observation that in some amateur productions you have a few glorious ones and everyone else has had to see what they could do with a table cloth and a tea towel, but there’s none of that here.

Jekyll (Hyde) is a massive part, and a huge test for any actor.  It’s all about the transformation (think American Werewolf in London, but less hairy), and keeping the parts ‘definite and opposite’, that quote coming from Gareth Lloyd, who plays Jekyll and Hyde but who is tonight in the audience, watching his understudy, Andrew Curtis, who will be playing the part in the matinee, on the stage.  One is amused by the fact that there are two Jekylls and two Hydes in the house, and I’m interested in how Gareth plays Hyde, and the differences between his and Andrew’s interpretation of the part.  Various quotes on his version include ‘playfully evil’, ‘anarchic’, and ‘physically animated’.  ‘Go on, give me your Hyde’ I say, and Gareth flops his hair over his eyes and looks at me with the only scary wild eye I can see.  Woah!

Andrew’s performance is tense, restrained, and quietly creepy, and his transformation is utterly believable.  I have five shiver moments during this show, and the one I get when he is ‘stroking’ Lucy during their dark and very well played duet, ‘A Dangerous Game’ is the least pleasant.  His Hyde gets more mad, twisted, contorted, tortured and frightening as the show goes on.  Whilst I prefer his acting over his vocals, there’s nothing that jars or disappoints, and I can’t take my eyes off him while he’s on the stage.

The other four shivers are as follows; the first ensemble number, ‘Façade’, when I realise that the orchestra and cast are rocking a Big Fat Sound, and that the show is going to be a) exciting and b) good; Lucy’s (Laura Deacon) first solo (so clear and powerful) ; the prostitutes’ dance (oh my eyes!) in ‘Bring On The Men’; and Emma (Naomi Ibbetson) and Lucy’s wonderful rendition of ‘In His Eyes’.

All of the parts are played well, but the truly shiny performances come from Laura Deacon and Andrew Curtis, and Naomi Ibbetson, whose voice can always be relied on.  There’s not a huge opportunity in this script for anyone else to shine much, to be fair, but Ian Diddams deserves a mention for his brutal brothel keeper, Spider, even if that beard does make him look a bit like Super Mario, and Sam Fillis for Stride.  And there’s no sign of that phenomena, present in more than a few amateur productions, that I call, rather bitchily, the lumpen chorus.  That’s people just hanging around looking like they’re thinking about egg sandwiches, and what day is it anyway, and oh, is it me now?  There’s none of that, there are all sorts of little cameos going on in the background, everyone’s on point, and no-one attracts the attention of my critical eye.

It’s a great show.  It’s scary, (maybe too scary for little kids), suspenseful, engaging, atmospheric, sexy and spectacular, and Devizes Musical Theatre should be pretty pleased with it.

And that was just the dress rehearsal…

Eight out of ten, and I didn’t think about an egg sandwich once.

Go along, if you can.

© Gail Foster 11th April 2018

(Creepy fact:  the Jack the Ripper murders started within weeks of Richard Mansfield’s performance and production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London, in 1888, and finished shortly after its short run came to a close…)

 

 

White Horse Opera Spring Concert

 

White Horse Opera’s Spring Concert, at the Town Hall in Devizes; a review

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On Friday night, I went to see White Horse Opera’s Spring Concert in the Town Hall.

White Horse Opera formed in 1990, with the aim of bringing high quality opera at affordable prices to Devizes and the surrounding area.  Since 1990 they have performed over 20 operas, including Aida, La Boheme, and Carmen, and in October they will be putting on Mozart’s intriguing opera, The Magic Flute.

One always hopes that these things are going to be good, in the full knowledge that amateur productions are seldom flawless.

I end up sat next to Andy Fawthrop.  Andy is, like myself, a cynical poet.  It could be an interesting night.

Stage set.  Grand paintings in golden frames.  Glittering chandeliers.  One pianist (Tony James), one Musical Director (Roland Melia – check out his impressive international CV), eleven sopranos, four altos, four tenors, and four basses (all dressed to kill), three quarters of an audience (more publicity next time, people), two cynical poets, and a programme of Mozart, Mendelssohn, madrigals, Stanford, Rossini, Donizetti, and little bits of Bizet.

They start with ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’.  Sweet.  Then Morley’s ‘Now is the month of Maying’.  Lively.  Then Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’, sung by Jessica Phillips.  Oh.  I look at Andy.  Andy looks at me.  A tear has sprung unexpectedly to my eye.  That’s beautiful.  So pure.  Quality.

And so it goes on.  ‘Fair Phyllis I Saw’, and ‘The Silver Swan’, and then, from The Magic Flute, a superb solo from Lisa House in ‘Love I Fear Has Gone Forever’, Charles Leeming’s deep and resounding ‘Sarastro’s Aria’, and to end the first half, Barbara Gompels, singing ‘The Queen of the Night Aria’ from The Magic Flute.

Now there’s a test of a soprano, if ever there was one.  Andy has raised an eyebrow, and I am overwhelmed by Barbara’s magnificent performance of such an intricate song.  Amazing.

By the interval Andy and I are stunned into silence. Neither of us can find anything to be cynical about.  It’s unusual, and I have to go out and have a cigarette to get over it.

The second half starts and ends with The Magic Flute, and there’s a lot of chorus action.  Stephen Grimshaw gives an expressive rendition of ‘Monostatos’ Aria’, and Barbara sings ‘Micaela’s Aria’ from Carmen (White Horse Opera are touring Carmen this year, and you can book them, you know.  Just saying).

Then it’s ‘The Chorus of Fairies’ from Midsummer’s Dream (nice wands), ‘Chorus Maria Stuarda’, ‘Chorus Santo Imen’, and Donizetti’s ‘Chorus L’Elisir d’Amore’ (bit of surreptitious jigging in the audience to this one – steady), a lot of cheerful hey-nonnying in Stanford’s ‘Sigh No More’, from Much Ado About Nothing, and then Bizet’s ‘Carmen Chorus’ (pinch me, are people actually tapping their feet?), and, finally, ‘The Magic Flute Chorus’.

I look at Andy.  Andy looks at me.  Both of us raise an eyebrow.  That was superb, and neither of us have a single bad word to say about it.  The individual performances were impressive (I’d like to give Chrissie Higgs a mention for her contribution), the whole chorus worked well together, there was a liveliness to the whole thing, and the acoustics in the Town Hall were wonderful.  Andy remarks afterwards on the quality of the pianist, and that the simple and unfussy arrangements complemented the singers perfectly.  Everyone seems to have enjoyed it, and lots of people look pleased.

On the way out, I accost a random stranger, and pester him for a quote.  ‘A lovely, relaxed, and charming evening’ he says, smiling.

It really was very good indeed.

When I was a kid my neighbours rang up my parents and politely requested that I desist practicing ‘Toreador’ on the piano.  From that point on, until White Horse Opera’s ‘Iolanthe’ last year, I have enthusiastically given opera a miss.

I think White Horse Opera may have changed my mind.

I look forward to The Magic Flute.

*

© Gail Foster 12th March 2018

Iolanthe; the White Horse Opera at Lavington School

a first night review…

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I was delighted to be asked to review the White Horse Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, Iolanthe, at Lavington School this week.  Delighted, but slightly nervous.  Opera, or operetta, apart from a brief flirtation with The Yeoman of the Guard in my youth, isn’t my cup of tea.  But I’m up for a challenge, and it really was about time I popped my White Horse Opera cherry.

I looked it up online and what I read tickled me.  Fairies and the House of Lords.  Bit of magic and a bit of satire.  Interesting.

First performed in London in 1882, Iolanthe, also known as ‘The Peer And The Peri’, took a mischievous jab at the high society of the time in this bizarre tale of a Fairy who has been banished for wedding a mortal, Strephon her son, a half-man, half-fairy sort of bloke, Phyllis, the mortal object of his (and everyone else’s) affections, various vociferous Fairies; a conflicted Lord Chancellor;  and assorted beery leery Peers.

Phyllis reciprocates Strephon’s love, but the Lord Chancellor, even though he is her legal guardian, also has his eye on her, and forbids Strephon from marrying her.  When Phyllis catches Strephon talking to Iolanthe about the situation and mistakes the ever youthful Fairy for a lover, she rejects him and says that she will marry a Peer.  The Fairy Queen and her crew, unimpressed with the Lord Chancellor and the Peers, put Strephon into Parliament and give him the power to pass any bill he likes…

It’s all a bit tricky really, what with the law about Fairies marrying mortals being punishable by death, the Lord Chancellor’s paradoxical legal dilemma, the state of the political nation, forbidden desires, cosmic compromises, and everyone falling in love with everyone else.  One could get quite deep about it, even (it’s his bottom half that’s mortal, by the way, in case you were wondering), what with all those rampant Fairies and randy Lords, Pagans and the Establishment, intellectual conflicts, ancient energies in tension, and stuff…

Or one could just enjoy a jolly good romp.  So to speak.

Well directed by Graham Billing, with superb musical direction by Roland Melia, the show was visually and aurally gripping from the outset.  The orchestra was tight and melodious throughout.  The acoustics were great (how mellow was that cello!).  The scenery, consisting of a screen backdrop of a flowing stream and a static image of the Houses of Parliament, was simple but effective.  The fairy dresses and butterfly wings were pretty, the Peers looked authentic, and the choreography was energetic.  It was, with the exception of a couple of minor hesitations, pretty slick for a first night.

A few voices stuck out a mile; Phyllis’s (Lisa House) beautiful soaring soprano, Lord Mountarat’s (Matt Dauncey) confident baritone, Iolanthe’s (Paula Boyagis) sweet mezzo-soprano, and Private Willis’s (Charles Leeming) sonorous bass.  Phyllis and Strephon’s (Jon Paget) duet ‘None Shall Part Us From Each Other’, and the Peers’ robust entry with ‘Loudly Let The Trumpet Bray’, got the old goosebumps going good and proper, and I couldn’t fault the whole cast harmonies.

As far as the acting went, good performances all round, but special mention to Matt Dauncey and Jon Paget again, Chrissie Higgs as the feisty Leila and Jessica Phillips as Celia, and Sue Goodman as the scary and imposing Queen of the Fairies.  Oh, and all of the Peers, who were truly amusing, delivered some delicious little cameos, played every moment with gusto, and ripped the Michael out of the aristocracy beautifully.

I’d like to have seen little more evidence of eternal youth and a tad more spring in the step of the Fairy ranks at times.  And a couple of voices took a while to warm up, or sounded better in some songs than others.   Stephen Grimshaw as the Lord Chancellor and Dennis Carter as Lord Tolloller impressed more in the second act, with Grimshaw nailing the complicated patter song ‘Love, Unrequited, Robs Me Of My Rest’, and Carter seeming more comfortable as time went on.

Picky, really, but had to be said.  Small spots of imperfection in an otherwise impeccable show that will doubtless be ironed out by Saturday.

I loved this show.  I spent much of the evening tapping my foot and smiling.  It was lively and engaging from the moment the orchestra struck their first chord.  You know a show’s been good when you haven’t taken your eyes off the stage or thought about domestic trivia for the entire length of it.  The ensemble pieces were well executed and fun to watch, the comic timing was spot on all round, and the sound was full and satisfying.

I enjoyed the surprise of the current political references, and the relevance of the story to the present day.  The visual spectacle.  The rollicking ride.  The glorious flighty flirtiness of it all.  And the stuff about the law and the lore.  What’s in a word, eh?  The lives of men and fairies, according to Gilbert and Sullivan.

(Interesting Iolanthe fact; fairy lights first appeared in the form of the battery operated star shaped lights worn in the hair of Iolanthe’s fairies in the first year of its run).

Iolanthe is an odd, thought-provoking opera about sex and politics that comes heavily disguised as a sparkly frivolous thing.  I reckon the production team and experienced cast of the White Horse Opera did it more than justice.  It exceeded my expectations, and I enjoyed popping my opera cherry very much.  How lucky are we to have quality opera like this out in the wilds of Wiltshire?

Therefore, even though I did say once that I never wanted to see Ian Diddams in a onesie and the Muppets were a tad incongruous, I’m giving Iolanthe…

drum roll…

Eight out of ten.

© Gail Foster 13th October 2017