Review: Coraline @ Barbican Theatre

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It was through the the Royal Opera House’s volunteer list that I ended up at the schools matinee of their new production at the Barbican, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Coraline. Slightly apprehensively, I took my seat in what must be worst seat in the house (squished up against the ceiling at the far-left side of the Gods) and surveyed the mass of chattering 12 year olds below me. When Turnage himself appeared at the side of the stage (well, he didn’t appear to me – restricted view) to give a lovely speech to the kids about why he had written this opera for them and that they could be brave and do anything they wanted to like Coraline, my heart was warmed and I got quite excited. What followed was a beautifully put-together fairy tale about one little girl’s battle to defeat her evil Other Mother and get her parents back, full of Alice In Wonderland-like charm and a cast of colourful characters giving committed performances (much more colourful, thank goodness, than the awful brown that seems to be the main feature of the Barbican Theatre’s stage).

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The look of the production was not what I expected – what with all theatres these days generally featuring slightly abstract, often beautifully designed but not necessarily representative images on their posters and websites, I am often surprised at the way productions actually end up looking. Coraline’s set was relatively realistic, simple but effective, with none if the mouldering Victorian gloom I thought I would see. There were many parallels, especially in the look and costumes of Coraline and the Ghost Children (an excellently harmonised trio of emerging opera stars), with the 2009 animated film – an understandable choice due to its popularity. The children loved the ‘magic tricks’ that had been incorporated into the props, while I was more intrigued by how the button eyes of the Other Mother and Other Father had been affixed – they looked very creepy indeed! I found the direction relatively unimaginative, and wished that the few little elements of physical theatre had been spun out more – people just standing and talking to each other, when in fact they’re singing complicated contemporary classical music, is sometimes just a bit boring.

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Turnage’s score is very ‘contemporary opera’ – an excellently orchestrated, suitably murky score sans memorable melodies. I was impressed that he had not settled for anything easy-to-please – the only thing ‘child-friendly’ about this production was Coraline’s propensity to address everything to the audience, which was admittedly effective. The score shines in its ability to render almost every word intelligible, doing away with the need for surtitles and providing refreshing clarity in an English-language opera. Whilst I wouldn’t have minded more ‘tunes’, and had hoped especially for a setting of the little ditty Coraline’s father sings to her in the book (‘O My Twitchy Witchy Girl’), the kids didn’t seem to mind.


Rory Mullarkey’s libretto, though it worked well in tandem with the music to convey the major plot points, was a bit disappointing to someone like me, who knows the source material very well. A lot of the quirky lines, that definitely aren’t essential to the plot but make the book so special, were cut, as were several major characters (including one of my favourites, Coraline’s sarcastic sidekick, the Cat). Personal quibbles aside, it was a very good exercise in demonstrating how to get to the bones of a story and adapt in for another genre. I look forward to finding out whether I will see the same in Mullarkey’s libretto for David Sawer’s The Skating Rink, an opera adapted from the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s novel of the same name, which is receiving its world premiere at Garsington this summer.

Embargo on image use until 9.30pm on Thursday 29th March

When Mary Bevan (Coraline) tweeted that the schools’ matinee of Coraline was her ‘favourite moment in [her] career so far!’, I understood – I’d never seen such an enthusiastic audience and it must have felt incredible to perform to them. One should never forget that performances are made for audiences, and this show, though I would have liked it to be a bit ‘bigger’ and a bit more whimsically nightmarish (Gaiman-ish?), was doubtlessly successful in reaching and entertaining its target audience.


Coraline played at the Barbican Theatre until 7th April 2018. For more information, click here.


Review: Instructions for Correct Assembly @ Royal Court Theatre

Harry (Mark Bonnar) and Max (Jane Horrocks) have tried parenthood once before. It didn’t go very well – their son Nick has left their lives. Now, they have a chance to start over with Jån, a flat-pack built-it-yourself son by next-day delivery – a ‘high-quality product’ programmed to their needs.


This is the premise of Thomas Eccleshare’s new play, Instructions for Correct Assembly, which is playing at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Alongside Bonnar and Horrocks, it stars Brian Vernel as both sons, Michele Austin and Jason Barnett as smug couple Laurie and Paul, whom Harry and Max have over for dinner sometimes, and Shaniqua Okwok in her professional stage debut as their Oxford-bound, rather smothered perfect daughter Amy.


There is a lot going on in this play. The elaborate design is striking in its conveyor-belt like set changes, the frequent use of a screen shielding the stage save for a window-like cut-out and its increasing abstraction (in these aspects, reminiscent both of the Lyric Hammersmith production of The Seagull in which Vernel played Konstantin and the Royal Court production of Alistair McDowall’s X starring Jessice Raine). The actors often join in the set changes, using jerking, hopping movements, tableaus and other physical theatre devices to enact machinery-inspired, slightly superfluous-feeling transitions between scenes. Lighting is made frequent and effective use of, the action is for the most part subtly underscored by quiet background music and there are quite a lot of props. Unfortunately, the effort that has obviously been put into all these aspects of the production leaves the performances and writing looking a bit pale. Though the energy picks up towards the end, conversation seems stilted and unnatural throughout the beginning – this may, of course, be intentional. There is definitely humour in the writing, but one feels that the audience is not nearly as engaged with the characters when not laughing. Vernel gives the standout performance as Jån, able to effortlessly ‘reset’ his personality as the machine-son, and Nick, perfectly pulling off the moody rogue as ever. There are some key moments in the rest of the performances that move or disturb (or sometimes both), such as when Harry and Max chat happily while doing their weekly ‘servicing’ of Jån’s parts, or when they hold each other in tears over the loss of Nick, but generally one feels the focus has been put on how the production looks.


A family drama clearly of the Black Mirror age, Instructions for Correct Assembly is a play that seems suffers from a case of style over substance – ideas more interesting than their execution. However, those ideas are enough to sustain the straight-through run of almost two hours and provide a thought-provoking evening of both laughs and inevitable doom.


Instructions for Correct Assembly is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 19th May 2018. For more information and tickets, click here

Review: Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter @ Empire Cinemas, Haymarket

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After recently experiencing the wonder that is The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (Kneehigh’s latest show; now on tour), I was very excited to see the revival of the company’s 2008 hit, Brief Encounter – the two shows, which are both directed by Emma Rice and deal with a love affair using similar theatrical devices, naturally invite comparison. This theatrical adaptation of Noël Coward’s 1936 play and David Lean’s 1945 film, which incorporates many of Coward’s classic songs, tells the story of the affair between housewife Laura and GP Alec in a wonderful spectacle somewhere between theatre, musical theatre and film.

Anyone familiar with Kneehigh’s work will know their knack for fusing music and dance, theatricality and physicality, stagecraft and whimsicality into elaborately staged experiences. On this front, Brief Encounter is typical Kneehigh fare. The set consists of a scaffolding-like construction of the bridge above two railway platforms, under which the station tea bar and sometimes Laura’s living room are housed, and, by extension, the grand space of the Empire, all in gold and purple, as well as the space onstage in front of a bright pink velvet curtain. However, what really creates the different scenes is the performers’ wonderful physicality. The passing of a train, for example, is represented by the everyone onstage suddenly ‘blowing’ themselves dramatically to one side – it’s funny and clear. True, a lot of the choreography doesn’t have the depth or precision that it did in Flying Lovers, but that’s understandable – there were only four people onstage in that production. But Brief Encounter could have, for lack of a better term, gone for it more with the stagecraft; the flight sequence, though lovely, is far too short and comes out of nowhere – it seems slightly underdone.

However, the performances, which thrive on wonderful juxtapositions of theatricality and naturalism, hilarity and melancholy, are anything but underdone. Jim Sturgeon as Alec, with his delightfully thick Transatlantic voice that wavers seemingly randomly through accents from Deep South to Scottish, is charmingly old-world. His singing, when we get to hear it towards the end, is touching and pure. Isabel Pollen is a restrained and lovely Laura – the deep emotions underlying her rather plain exterior are effectively embodied by images of deep, swirling ocean waters on the screen behind the stage. Sturgeon and Pollen make a beautiful pair, the sincere love between them forming the melancholy core of an otherwise highly amusing show. There is some amazing character acting on display from Lucy Thackeray, Dean Nolan and Beverly Rudd, who take on a number of roles but most frequently appear, respectively, as delightfully affected tea bar owner Myrtle, boisterously earthy ticket inspector Albert and sturdily ruddy shop-girl Beryl. However, Jos Slovik steals the show as Beryl’s swain Stanley. With his bright, clear voice, he does most of the singing and effortlessly plays several instruments, underscoring both the bittersweet central love story between Alec and Laura as well as the less noble but rather happier trysts between Beryl and Stanley and Myrtle and Albert. They are joined onstage a couple of musicians who serenade the audience even as they arrive and later take on various small roles with amazing versatility.

The show displays a huge breath of emotions through its excellent performances and incredible design. Just when you think you know what’s coming next, the mind-boggling inventiveness of the production trips you up and touches you or makes you laugh in unexpected ways. Making use of everything from puppetry to collage, this play brims with colour, music and life, making it a thrilling experience for both younger audiences unfamiliar with the story and old Coward hands, who are sure to fall in love all over again.

Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter is playing at Empire Cinemas Haymarket until 2nd September 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review Catch-Up

I have not yet had a chance to type up my reviews of the following shows, so to give a quick overview –

beasts2The B*easts @ Bush Theatre: ★★★★★

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child @ Palace Theatre: ★★★★★

Julius Caesar @ Bridge Theatre: ★★★★

Girls and Boys @ Royal Court Theatre: ★★★/★

Yous Too @ Hampstead Theatre: ★★★

Winter @ Young Vic: ★



Review: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk @ Wilton’s Music Hall

The-Flying-Lovers-of-Vitebsk_credit-Steve-Tanner-4-768x497After captivating audiences at The Globe in 2016, Kneehigh’s play about Marc and Bella Chagall, art and love begins its 2018 tour with a four-week stop at Wilton’s Music Hall. Fitting the magical surroundings of Wilton’s like a glove, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is 90 minutes of heartbreakingly beautiful stagecraft and song that charts a couple’s love story as they journey across a most volatile period in recent history.

Everything about this production is mesmerising, from the detailed and entrancing performances given by Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood as Marc Chagall and his first wife Bella (it seems fated that Antolin should share his character’s name, since he inhabits him so well) to Daniel Jamieson’s deeply poetic and truthful writing. The actors, aided by careful and imaginative direction by Emma Rice and her co-choreographer Etta Murfitt, fully embody the writing, moving together in the type of excellent physical theatre choreography that can seem more real than normal movement.

We begin with Marc as an old man alone onstage, talking into a phone whose long, dangling cable precariously links him to the outside world. We then swiftly dive into his reminiscences, watching as young Bella Rosenfeld of Vitebsk, Belarus meets the Jewish painter Marc Chagall in 1909. They fall in love and marry, quickly beginning their wanderings across Europe in that most uncertain of times. We witness everything from the October Revolution to the Holocaust, all evoked symbolically, almost whimsically, from afar. Their relationship becomes the lens through which we witness the passing of history. Young love, the vexations of married life, the loss of what is most dear to you, are all movingly portrayed against the backdrop of a turbulent early-to-mid 20th century Europe. An exploration of Chagall’s need to paint and his artistic inspirations runs through, but significantly the play is also about the artistry of women being less celebrated than that of the men in their lives. We watch with some regret as Bella puts childbearing, housekeeping and taking care of family before her intellectual aspirations. There is always something more important for her to do which, as Marc tells her cruelly, is ‘why you will never be a writer’.

It is not just the movement of the actors that is well-choreographed in this show; the sound, costume, prop and set design too come together to make a coherent, magical whole. In an inspired distillation of many of the play’s themes, including the perils of falling in love, the changing nature of the times and the suspension in mid-air that is so central to Chagall’s artwork, everything onstage seems to be tilting, falling, or swinging by a thread. Marc and Bella hardly ever stand on two feet or sit quietly on a chair; they are ever dancing, moving, flying. Music and sound effects come from all angles, the lighting keeps changing, props are numerous and fanciful, and everything comes together to create a surreal experience for the senses that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

One of the most memorable things about this production is its gorgeous music. Ian Ross, multi-instrumentalist, composer and Kneehigh associate artist, has written an astonishing score influenced by everything from Klezmer to Tchaikovsky and plays it onstage with fellow band member James Gow. The melancholic and emotive sounds of the piano and cello, often enhanced by other instruments, suit the story perfectly. Bringing the melodies to life, Antolin and Maywood’s clear, powerful singing voices fill the production with everything from folk tunes to Ella Fitzgerald. The production begins with Antolin at the piano, gently singing ‘I’m Making Believe’. That sweet and simple jazz standard recurs throughout the show in different forms and hasn’t left my head since seeing the show. A particularly haunting duet between Marc and Bella sees them dancing around each other in the theatre where Marc, employed as a set-painter, is holding paintbrushes. Bella sings in Yiddish, Marc in English, of secretly desiring the other when alone ‘in my quiet hours’, in a tune full of soaring, piercing harmonies.

There are two moments in this wonderfully delicate two-hander that, together, eloquently sum up the depth of its exploration of the experience of loving someone. During the scene that portrays the couple’s honeymoon, Bella lays her face parallel to Marc’s and gently states, ‘we’re like opera glasses. We choose to look at the same things’. Much later, during the lonely moments in the life of an older, widowed Marc that frame the story, he realises poignantly while reading Bella’s writings that, though they looked at the same things, they saw them through different eyes. Filled with such openness and insight, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk will be thought-provoking and strangely comforting to all who have ever been in love. I was still so lost in this play on the train home that I completely missed my stop!

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk played at Wilton’s Music Hall until 10 February 2018 and is now on tour across the UK. For more information, see here.

[originally published by Everything Theatre]

Review: Parliament Square @ Bush Theatre

One morning, Kat gets up early, leaves her husband and young daughter behind, and boards a train to London, resolved to a drastic act. She is on her way to Parliament Square, where she will tip a can of petrol over herself and set herself alight, hoping to send a message – something needs to change.

02-RET-Parliment-Square-Esther-Smith-Kat-Photo-Richard-Davenport-2000x1334(photos: The Other Richard)

Even though the play’s run at the Bush has finished, in the interest of not completely spoiling it, I won’t detail the aftermath of Kat’s decision – I will only say that it is touching, captivating and unpredictable. As the consequences of her actions spiral and the years pass, the audience realises that the all the tension leading up to that fateful moment in Parliament Square was just the beginning.


The production is imaginatively and highly effectively directed by Jude Christian, who previously directed another fascinating mother-daughter relationship in Bodies at the Royal Court. Situations difficult to portray, such as the passing of time or the burning of a body, are brought to life through excellent lighting and sound design, as well as tightly choreographed scene changes and overlappings of text. Design and direction are utterly absorbing overall, and the minimal set allows the committed performances of the ensemble cast, led by an impressively believable Esther Smith as Kat, to shine. Lois Chimimba, always a strong presence, is full of youthful energy as both the voice in Kat’s head and later, her now-teenage daughter Jo.


Parliament Square is affecting and thought-provoking, and covers an impressive amount of ground in its slim hour and twenty minutes – I’d barely finished my pint by the end! Many questions are thrown to the audience member – Was Kat right to do what she did? Would I ever be brave enough to do such a thing? Is it possible for us to affect change in an unforgiving and hopeless-seeming world? The play’s flaws, such as the vagueness of Kat’s dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and the inevitably unsatisfying ending, were forgotten by myself and my companion once our wide-eyed, fervent post-show discussion began.


Parliament Square played at Bush Theatre until 6th January 2017. For more information, click here.

Review: The Twilight Zone @ Almeida Theatre

I must begin this review with a confession – before I went to see this show, I had never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone (I have since remedied this). However, growing up with American parents (albeit in Germany), it was very much part of my cultural heritage. It is a bizarre sort of nostalgia that fills you when you experience something that feels familiar yet is not, that reminds you of so much of something you do not know, and yet I felt nostalgic watching this play.


Adapting, fragmenting and intertwining several episodes from the hit CBS television series, writer Anne Washburn creates something that is eclectic homage, loving pastiche and mesmerising fantasy. Directed excellently by Olivier Award-winning Richard Jones, the play’s many narratives, which deal with everything from mental health to the threat of nuclear war, are just as relevant now as they were in the 1960s. The retro sci-fi feel of the production will appeal to today’s Stranger Things-watching youngsters as much as to their grandparents.

The Twilight Zone. Photo credit Marc Brenner (2)

The production’s design successfully evokes the black and white television series the play is based on, with everything kept to a monochrome colour-palette. A wonderfully eerie soundscape by Sarah Angliss, based of course around the familiarly sinister theme tune, complements the action, and the fascinating transitions executed by the cast with Paul Steinberg’s set almost steal the show. The versatile cast constantly switch between characters and stories, aided by a great number of quick-changes and wigs. It is an ensemble show, certainly, but Cosmo Jarvis and John Marquez are particularly memorable in their ability to play characters anguished by the perils of treading between light and shadow, science and superstition, fear and knowledge..


I loved this play. Creepy enough to get the adrenaline going (or maybe I’m just a scaredy-cat), yet endearing and funny enough to feel strangely comforting, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. A well-crafted production, The Twilight Zone was enhanced by many detailed touches, from the stage magic that made newspapers change front pages before our eyes to the purposeful delaying of the mention of the words ‘The Twilight Zone’ until the very end.

The-Twilight-Zone.-John-Marquez1-700x455(photo credit: Marc Brenner)

The Twilight Zone is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 27th January 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review: The Passing of the Third Floor Back @ Finborough Theatre

Best known these days for his comic novel Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome was famous in his day for his plays as well. His most successful was The Passing of the Third Floor Back, which enjoyed long runs in the West End and Broadway, and inspired several film adaptations. As the Finborough Theatre mounts the first London production of this play for almost 70 years, the time has come to assess whether it retains its appeal.


The Passing of the Third Floor Back is set in a 1907 Bloomsbury boarding house whose spend-thrift housekeeper is a bit of a cheat and whose middle-class guests, relentlessly aspiring to a higher social position, are loathe to let on how much they are all down on their luck.

The play begins with a lengthy prologue that shows them at each other’s throats; everyone in the boarding house is irritable, deceptive, self-interested and generally unlikeable. When the play proper begins, the characters are named and the central scene of the tale occurs.

A peculiarly beguiling stranger arrives to rent the free room on the ‘third floor back’ and, in a kind of inverse An Inspector Calls scenario, has deep conversations with each resident in turn, alerting them to their failings of character and bringing out their ‘better selves.’ The mystery surrounding the identity and purpose of this stranger keeps the audience on tenterhooks.


The production, with its quirky but lovely design by Jasmine Swan, is fascinating to look at. The walls and fireplace of the Bloomsbury house’s sitting room in which we find ourselves seem to be made of burnished metal. The strangely enclosed space this creates suggests the industrial nature of Victorian times, and wonderfully reflects the sunlight that occasionally streams in, symbolising the gradual enlightenment of the characters.

Though some of the actors have to make do with rather stereotypical and underwritten roles, the performances are good all around. Thus, Richard Stirling excellently plays with his comic role as Scottish dandy Alick McGillivray, while Ella Dunlop is heart-warming as rough-around-the-edges but wholesome maid Stasia. Another wonderful touch is harpist Lizzie Faber, seated stage right, whose haunting playing lends the action a special mystique.

By all accounts this is a curiosity rather than a great play, but it is still exceedingly charming, and very funny. One wonders if Jerome, in telling a simple fairy tale about the inherent goodness in all of us at the beginning of the 20th century, was reacting to the then recent establishment of psychoanalysis and Freud’s assertion that humans are neither good nor noble, but desire-driven animals.

Be that as it may, watching Alexander Knox as the Stranger is captivating. Do his oddly intense gazes belie the sincerity of his performance? Perhaps a little. Nevertheless, I was drawn into the cosy nostalgia always evoked by Victorian sitting rooms and the fable’s slight supernatural slant. If for no other reason than to see what delighted West End audiences at the turn of the century, this revival is well worth a visit.


The Passing of the Third Floor Back is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 22 December 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review: Hamlet @ Glyndebourne on Tour

Hamlet might be the most well-loved and influential play in the English language. Its tale of loss and revenge, of madness and fathers, hinges on that fateful question, to be or not to be. Daringly, this new take on the play begins with fragments of that famous soliloquy:  ‘ be..’, Hamlet intones, sounding deeply forlorn. This first sentence, torn from the middle of the play, lands strangely on the ears, setting the tone for Brett Dean’s stunning new opera – this production is about to breathe dark life into an age-old story.

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What follows is an exhilarating treatment of a familiar tale. The narrative remains largely unchanged, but librettist Matthew Jocelyn is not afraid to chop and change things, make use of versions of famous speeches not usually performed and reassign crucial bits of dialogue. In any case, a Hamlet opera that stuck completely to the book would be at least longwinded, if not unfeasibly long, so the experimental treatment of the text is called for, and successful on top of that. We encounter Hamlet, a prince still mourning his father’s death while his mother has since taken his father’s brother as her new husband and king, as intrinsically youthful, at times sardonic, at times depressed. The treatment of the central character seems to change with each iteration of Hamlet, making it one of the most interesting points to measure a production by.


The cast give strong performances overall, but some singers and their roles prove particularly memorable. David Butt Philip in the title role is intensely committed, skilfully inhabiting the disjointedness of the singing and narrative. His Hamlet is rough, almost animalistic, a moody teenager with a savage edge. Then there is his sometime love, Ophelia. Though Barbara Hannigan sang the role during Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s summer production of Hamlet, the role of Ophelia seems to be written for Jennifer France with her sparkling soprano voice and obvious gift for acting. She lends a childlike quality to her earlier scenes and a gripping madness to her later deterioration, making the most of her every moment on stage. Lastly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by James Hall and Rupert Enticknap as a countertenor duo, are perfect – their glib Tweedledum and Tweedledee-ness is almost sinister.


In Hamlet, Australian composer Brett Dean makes use of an extraordinary amount of unusual musical devices. The chorus, directed by Glyndebourne’s new chorus master Nicholas Jenkins, frame the action by moving about from onstage to offstage, appearing suddenly, singing at full volume, in different parts of the auditorium. A few instrumentalists that double as foley artists – banging rocks together, rustling plastic bags, and more – are stationed at the top of the auditorium behind each balcony. As I was up in the cheap seats at the side of the stage, I was as close as one could possibly be to the manipulators of these bizarre sound effects. The ingenious use of a semi-chorus positioned in the pit for the whole of the show adds an extra layer of stereophonic immersiveness. It was refreshing to feel so involved in a production, as even as an opera-lover and student, I find it hard to appreciate some works of contemporary opera, especially when an utter abandonment of melodic line makes them hard to swallow. However, Hamlet gets it just right – there is nothing boring or old-fashioned about it, but there are plenty of congruous musical components, and though the music is overwhelming, it is never uncomfortable to listen to.


Hamlet not only sounds but looks exciting – the set by Ralph Myers and the costumes by Alice Babidge have an air of subdued 19th century Nordic glamour which greatly suits the production. Great off-white sash windows and doors that frame the dining room in which the opera begins gradually fracture apart as things go more and more awry in the story and the chorus rush about in their smart dinner jackets and gowns of pale, pearly silks. The scene in which a play is staged in the royal household is especially wonderfully done as the versatile stage flats turn to become scaffolding-like structures hung with bright costumes and spotlights.


Though it is unlikely I will remember the music for long, Hamlet certainly provided me with a memorable first experience of Glyndebourne and its beautiful environs. The opera gets the balance of old and new just right and seems well on its way to making an impact on the continuous evolution of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.


Glyndebourne’s Hamlet is on tour around England until 1st December 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review: La Bohème @ Royal Opera House

Upon taking someone to the opera for the first time, I might well choose Puccini’s La Bohème. It’s a classic, the music is exquisite, and the story contains all the emotional highs and lows one expects from opera. This new production at the Royal Opera House, directed by Richard Jones, has a lot of expectations to live up to, as it replaces a well-loved older production that ran for 41 years.

ROYAL OPERA(photos by Catherine Ashmore)

Set around 1830, La Bohème tells the story of a group Bohemians living poor but happy in Paris attics. Poet Rodolfo is falling for ailing seamstress Mimì, painter Marcello is heartbroken over flighty and headstrong Musetta, musician Schaunard brings home some much-needed food and firewood through an enterprising commission to a gathering including philosopher Colline. A bohemian tale of love, friendship, jealousy and tragedy ensues.


Unfortunately, the cast do not fully match the passion that Puccini’s wonderful score provides. The comedic interactions between Marcello, Schaunard and the rest are very amusing, and the singing is excellent all-round, but the most watchable and best characterised is Nicole Car’s youthful Mimì. Though I was far away, she constantly drew my eyes to her. Her blue-grey dress complimenting her dark ginger hair beautifully, she fully inhabited her character and gave touching renditions of Mimì’s classic arias.


Stewart Laing‘s spectacular set and costumes sparkle. Though some aspects of 19th century Paris are pared down – the mostly bare wood garret that forms the first set is stark in design (and unfortunately greatly obscures the view of those in it for people in the cheap seats like me) – the opera’s setting in past resists too much modernisation. The colourful arcades and shops of the next scene with their bustling crowd of merry Parisians look like a beautifully Christmassy chocolate tin, making me wish this production with its Nutcracker-esque design were running til December. Certainly, the children’s chorus looked and sounded as happy and excited as if it were Christmas eve, singing out and clearly enjoying their bright sailor-suits and doll-like dresses. The classically rendered Café Momus set was pink and fluffy like a well-iced cake, and yet the giant black box of a stage in the background, slightly cinematic in quality in quality as slow lightly fell, reminded me (and another audience member I overheard on my way out) of Ian McNeil’s design for Angels in America at the National Theatre.


This Bohème, though barely unconventional or thought-provoking, succeeds overall. Even though I was up almost in the gods and standing, time flew by as I was swept up in the moving story. Whether the production’s power lies in the new staging or the opera’s enduring appeal will only be revealed over time.


La Bohème is playing at the Royal Opera House until 10th October 2017 and again from 16th June to 20th July 2018. For more information and tickets, click here.