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Feb 22nd

La Strada - Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

 

Reviewed by Louise Winter 20th February 2017

An evocative, poetic, striking, and enigmatic piece of art

Based on the Oscar-winning 1954 film by Fellini, La Strada (the road) tells the story of the Gelsomina (Audrey Bresson), sold by her widowed mother to travelling strongman Zampanò (Stuart Goodwin) in a desperate move to feed her other children. Gentle, 'artichoke faced' Gelsomina works as Zampanò’s assistant, setting up his act and passing around the hat. Zampanò is violent, beats Gelsomina into submission, spends all their money on booze and women, and gives her nothing to send home to her family. Gelsomina has no choice but to remain with him, being far from home and powerless. The pair are eventually taken on by a travelling circus where Gelsomina strikes up a friendship with The Fool, Il Matteo. Past events, which are never explicit, between The Fool and Zampanò lead to tragic events.

La Strada

image by Robert Day  

The approach of this company is to create the show, using the original film as a source, as rehearsals progress. There is no initial script and all elements of the production are developed organically by the cast and creatives. There is a seamlessness and unity in the production; a harmony of story, cast and staging as a result. 

The physicality of this production is central to the impact with almost all characters on the simple, stark stage set throughout. Much is portrayed by the ensemble who watch and comment on the action like a Greek chorus, creating the whooshing of the waves and the rattle of the rain with their bodies. The narrative is on occasion moved along by them yet who speaks and from where on stage is not always evident, adding to the sense of mystery and hidden elements of this story. Not all is laid bare on stage and the audience is left to interpret the characters and events to some extent. This oftentimes sense of looking beneath the surface is challenging and stimulating, more like reading literature where one’s imagination is key to completing storylines and character motivations.  The use of vignettes which flow into and through one another gives us fleeting glances into hidden aspects, yet scenes transform and move on before we see too much, leaving us to our imaginations and interpretations. This movement, created under the direction of Cameron Carver, waxes and wanes physically over the stage creating a sense of timelessness and impermanence.  

La Strada

image by Robert Day

Staging by Katie Sykes is a versatile set with simple backdrop, high telegraph poles, ropes and chains upon which the cast climb and hang. Crates are shifted to become tables, chairs, beds and Zampanò’s motorbike. It is a contained and at times effectively claustrophobic set, keeping Gelsomina confined with The Strong Man. Lighting by Aideen Malone creates warm golden sunshine, cold sharp nights, the inside of a circus tent or a bar at night - always a sense of time and place. 

Original music from Benji Bower and an ethereal soundscape from Mike Beer present wonderful energetic gypsy-like songs and instrumental moments in some scenes, all performed by the multi-talented cast ,and then strange other-worldly sensations at other times; a haunting, ghostly sense is a constant companion.

La Strada cast

image by Robert Day 

Director Sally Cookson’s international cast of supremely talented actors/musicians are outstanding. There is a sense of sure-footedness and cohesiveness to them which must come from the way the company develops its work.

Audrey Brisson is outstanding as the awkward Gelsomina. Tiny on stage, looking like a female Chaplin her stance, walk and physicality depict humour, vulnerability and fragility; at times uncomfortable and emotional to watch. Bresson connects with the audience immediately. Her transformation to a slightly more confident figure is done with subtlety – a small shift in her body language, a change in gear for her movement across stage. Bresson is spellbinding to watch. The final scene is a complete revelation; that such an incredibley powerful voice and purity of tone comes from the little clown Gelsomina is truly breathtaking.

Stuart Goodwin as Zampanò is completely commanding and dominating. Despite Zampanò's coarse, uncouth and violent behaviour, Goodwin gives us tiny glimpses of another layer to this man. The motivations behind his aggression and hate for The Fool (Bart Soroczynski) is unstated but The Fool’s mocking causes him agitation and to ultimately lose control.

Soroczynski demonstrates his consummate circus skills on the unicycle setting up the second half. As The Fool he is a jaded, melancholic clown and a soft-hearted kindred spirit to Gelsomina. Finding fun and pleasure where he can includes insulting and goading Zampanò but in doing so and his care for Gelsomin he holds a mirror up to humanity. As in Shakespeare, here The Fool is no fool but shines a light on others. 

This is a remarkable and captivating piece of theatre; intelligent, engaging and unusual in the midst of so much mediocrity. Productions like this need to be supported, embraced and treasured. 

La Strada is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 25th February 2017 and then on tour.

Box Office:                   0844 871 7652 (bkg fee)* 

Groups Hotline:         01908 547609 

Access Booking:       0844 871 7677 (bkg fee)* 

Online Booking:        www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes  (bkg fee)

 

 

Feb 15th

The Red Shoes at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

Reviewed by Alison Smith

The Red Shoes image Johan Persson

image: Johan Persson

Bourne says The Red Shoes is a modern story of ‘obsession and celebrity’ and we see that clearly through the life of a young dancer who makes the wrong choice in choosing ballet stardom before love, a choice which leads to her tragic death. But on the way to her untimely death, Bourne presents the audience with a sumptuous ballet. This stage production is based on The Red Shoes, the 1948 ballet film by Powell and Pressburger, based in turn on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. In the Forties’ film the young dancer, Victoria Page, and the young composer, Julian Craster, are taken on by the tyrannical, yet charismatic, ballet impresario, Lermontov. Victoria has her chance to become a star when the prima ballerina of the company is injured. By then Victoria has fallen in love with Craster, the composer. Jealous Lermontov banishes Craster from the troupe, thus setting the stage for the tragedy.

The Red Shoes Johan Persson

image: Johan Persson

The complexity of Bourne’s Red Shoes is that the ballet is a ballet within a ballet. The ingenious device of designer Lez Brotherson’s moving proscenium arch reveals on-stage and off-stage, beach and bedroom, Covent Garden and Monte Carlo. This allows a voyeuristic view of the ballet troupe and the constant mixing of ‘real life’ and ‘art’, and the incorporation of pastiches of twentieth century ballet and intimate scenes, juxtaposed with the ensemble, give Red Shoes its pace. There are many unforgettable moments such as the glorious scene in the rehearsal room when the stars, jaded Irina (Anjali Mehra) and the outrageously camp Ivan (Liam Mover) go through their number dressed in fur coat and kimono, the joyful ballet on the beach in Villefrance-Sur-Mer, the sand dancers in the  tawdry music hall and the moving solo performance by Victoria (Ashley Shaw) at the end of Act 1 when the red shoes first reveal their evil nature.    

The Red Shoes Johan Persson

image: Johan Persson

The choreography matches the mood of the scenes perfectly. There is real tenderness in the pas-de-deux between Craster (Dominic North) and Victoria; in the trio dances with Lermontov (Sam Archer) the battle for control and emotion is apparent. The atmospheric score by Bernard Hermann with arrangements by Terry Davies reinforces the atmosphere and the incorporation of music from the 1966 film Fahrenheit 451 is sensational. The lighting pervades the stage with shadows and brightness. It is used to great effect when the audience becomes part of the troupe and the lights are on us and, explosively, in the last scene when the audience is blinded by the lights of the train.  Lastly the costumes must be mentioned – a mixture of modern and classical, rich, colourful and beautiful.

There is little to fault in this ballet - the dancing, the music the setting and the lighting are inspired. It is a privilege to see such a polished performance.

The Red Shoes is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 18th February.

www.atgtickets.com

08448717652

Booking fee applies

 

Jan 31st

Not Dead Enough at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Louise Winter

Reviewed by Louise Winter

30th January 2017

poster Not Dead Enough

This stage production of the third of Peter James’ ‘Roy Grace’ series is set to follow the huge success of previous productions and is sure not to be the last. James has been acclaimed as ‘one of the most fiendishly clever crime fiction plotters’ (Daily Mail) and his Roy Grace novels have been published in 37 languages and sold over 18 million copies worldwide. He is a hugely popular novelist and his collaboration here with producer Joshua Andrews, Olivier award winning director Ian Talbot, and award winning playwright Shaun McKenna is a winning combination.

Not Dead Enough Mark Douet

photo by Mark Douet

Intriguing from the start and with a great sense of atmosphere - a result of the very effective stage design (Michael Holt) and lighting (Jason Taylor) - this is an ultimately chilling tale but with very amusing moments throughout to give it light and shade. 

Not Dead Enough Mark Douet

photo by Mark Douet

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (Shane Ritchie) opens an investigation into the murder of Katie Bishop whose husband Brian (Stephen Billington) vehemently claims his innocence and continues to do so even as the evidence mounts against him and Grace's conviction wavers. The story becomes progressively more complex with links to past murders and maybe even to the mysterious disappearance of Grace’s wife ten years previously; the pace and suspense build effectively as the story unfolds. There are moments when the anticipation is tangible and the audience collectively holds its breath.

Not Dead Enough Mark Douet

photo by Mark Douet

There is some fine work by the cast but it is Ritchie who drives this production, rarely off stage and a supremely confident and commanding presence. Laura Whitmore as Cleo Morey is very good here in her professional debut and this is just the beginning of what promises to be a great stage career. Stephen Billington has wide ranging stage, television and film experience and takes the complex part of Brian Bishop in his stride. Support from Michael Quartey as Glenn Branson and Gemma Atkins as Sophie Harrington give this production a confident cast.

This is an enjoyable yarn with a good twist which intrigues until the last scene. 

Not Dead Enough is at MK Theatre until Saturday 4th February 
Box Office:                0844 871 7652 (bkg fee)* 
Groups Hotline:       01908 547609 
Access Booking:       0844 871 7677 (bkg fee)* 
Online Booking:       www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes  (bkg fee) 

 

 

 

Jan 28th

Thoroughly Modern Millie at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

 

Review by Alison Smith

There are two great stars in this production of Thoroughly Modern Milly. The first of course is the leading lady, the multi-talented Joanne Clifton, well known for her excellent dancing, she must now be recognised as a true musical star with her impressive singing voice and perfect comic timing. The second accolade goes to Graham MacDuff, who played the part of Mr Trevor Graydon; his love-at-first-sight scene with the Miss Dorothy was captivating in its ridiculousness, his drunk scene was reminiscent of the antics of Charlie Chaplin and Dudley Moore and in the finale his kicks and flicks nearly surpassed those of Milly. Of course this is not to say that the other actors did not perform well, for example Sam Barrett as Jimmy Smith and Jenny Fitzpatrick as Muzzy. I was disappointed, however, by Michelle Collins. Her stereotypical performance as Mrs Meers  was too much like a pantomime witch; her appearance was vaguely amusing – chopsticks and  yellow hue, but her cackling, lisping language made her hard to understand.

 What is Mrs Meers role? She is the landlady of the boarding house where Milly lives. The scene is New York in the 1920s, the era of ‘modern’ women, such as Milly, who leave for the big city to live life to the full. Milly is modern in the sense that she wants to be independent, but only to a certain degree – her aim is to marry her boss, the owner of Sincere Trust Insurance Company.  Of course there would be no show if she achieved that aim. Her boss, (Graydon) falls in love with Milly’s best friend, Miss Dorothy (Katherine Glover – superb voice) who falls in love with Ching Ho, who saves her from Mrs Meers’ dastardly white slave trade to China. (Is this change from the original plot, where Dorothy and Graydon fall in love, a nod to political correctness in 2017 or just a way to evoke laughter?)  Milly, despite her determination to marry well, falls head over heels in love with Jimmy Smith , who is pretending to be a poor paper-clip salesman (I am in steel) so a girl will love him for himself not for his money, when he is, in fact ,the brother of Miss  Dorothy. It turns out that they are the step children of Muzzy Van Hossmere, an eccentric, widowed millionairess. (Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan)

 The fact that the musical is based in the 20s, famous for prohibition and flappers is a great opportunity for exciting music, great choreography and wonderful costumes. The band  of 7 led by Christopher Peak is outstanding, playing with verve and flair numbers such as Forget about the Boy,  I Turned the Corner and most notably Thoroughly Modern Millie.(New music by Jeanine Tesori).The choreography (Racky Plews) is sometimes exciting, especially the tap dancing typists, the ensemble’s Charleston, the Speed Test and Milly’s solos. As for the Roaring Twenties costumes – cloches, sequins, fringes, bar-shoes - they are present in abundance. The stage set is Art Deco - think the Chrysler building in New York - and practical;  I did like the modernist lift and lights and the moveable boarding house. And yet there are moments of dullness when the stage seems empty and this gives the impression that the musical is overly long. This could be overcome by having a bigger ensemble – guys dressed as flapper girls, although amusing for a moment, add little to the 1920s atmosphere – and more excitement is needed; it was the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, The Age of the Red Hot Mamas, Annees Folles, - we were not given enough of this.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 28th January and then on tour.

www.atgtickets.com

08448717652

Booking Fee Applies

 

 

 

Dec 14th

Dick Whittington at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

Reviewed by Alison Smith

Poster for Dick Whittington from ATG.tickets

Pantomime is the perfect antidote to 2016’s negativity and MK Theatre’s Dick Whittington is at the forefront of frolics and forgetting. The narrative of the journey is only a device to explore a fantastic riot of silliness and fun and, of course, as in all treasured children’s tales, the goal is reached and goodness wins the day. The story is short and simple - a poor boy, Dick, makes his way to London and by overcoming adversity becomes a rich boy. 

Dick is played by Chris Jenkins. He is accompanied everywhere by his faithful cat. Tommy, (Sophie Hart) is a black and white bundle of rat-catching acrobatics.  Dick is handsome and catches the eye of Alice Fitzwarren – but the perfect pair are from opposite sides of the track. And who tries to derail their relationship,? None other than evil personified, the Queen Rat, portrayed excellently by Samantha Womack, and her gang of ratlets

Of course Queen Rat has adversaries in the form of Fairy Bowbells (Stacey Solomon), Sarah the Cook, the Pantomime Dame, (Kevin Brewis) and Idle Jack (Kev Orkian). Stacey Solomon is the weakest of the three; she tends to gabble at times and does not have such a stage presence as her fellow actors. Kevin Brewis is excellent, despite his hideous make-up and cumbersome costumes, his timing is superb, his voice strong.  But it is Kev Orkian who captures the audience from the outset and shines throughout the performance with his energy and antics; his puns are so bad they are funny. ‘A thief stole the garden gate; I didn’t say anything in case he took offence.’ Boom boom.  And throughout, for the adults, there is racy innuendo, centred mainly around the name Dick and sausages. The writer Eric Potts has cleverly interwoven local references into the script – Bletchley, Leighton Buzzard  - and topical matters – Holby City, Lush , Sharon Osborne, even Donald Trump. The song the Twelve Days of Christmas is a masterpiece of imagination and energy performed by Sarah the Cook, Idle Jack and Bosun Bill. It includes a bra that was made for three, 5 toilet rolls and water pistols fired gleefully and accurately into the audience.

The scenery is superb, vivid and sparkly in the court of the sultan and the Lord Mayor’s office, busy and crowded in the street and kitchen scene. One wonderful scene is the underwater tumbling and swimming of Dick and Tommy and, with 3D glasses, colourful coral with an array of sea -creatures , crabs, sharks , ,and even a huge octopus came to life, frighteningly close for some of the  small children.

The music, conducted by Uncle Barry, as Idle Jack referred to him, (Barry Robinson)  supervised by Steve Power, consists of a medley of well-known pop songs.  Notable is the song competition between Dick and Queen Rat when she sings in the style of Shirley Bassey, Kate Bush and he copies Tom Jones and Queen. Marvellous!

This is the best pantomime I have seen for many years. It is clever, risqué without being vulgar, full of music, laughter and energy. It is suitable for all ages. This will be a difficult panto to follow. 

Dick Whittington is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 15th January 

www.atgtickets.com

0844 871 7652

 

Nov 24th

ENB Nutcracker at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

 

Reviewed by Alison Smith 23rd November 2016 

The ENB Nutcracker ushers in the season of good tidings and joy. This ballet kindles  nostalgia, romance and, so as not to be too cloying for the adults or too frightening for the children, just a touch of terror in Mouse King and his ‘family’; nostalgia in the depiction of an Edwardian Christmas, romance in the dream of a beautiful young girl and a handsome prince, and terror when evil creatures appear. It is the tradition too, as in all fairy tales, that the ending is perfect; God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

The English National Ballet does not disappoint on any of these details. The Edwardian Christmas in Act l is perfectly portrayed with an old-fashioned winter scene, skaters skimming (mostly) gracefully over the ice, their costumes classy, if a little dull.  And then indoors the atmosphere is warm and cosy; the Christmas decorations not too gaudy, the children, or the girls at least, well behaved. 

The young Clara is danced beautifully by Sophia Mucha; delicate and expressive she reveals all the emotions of a child at Christmas. It is Clara who is given a doll in the shape of a nutcracker by Drosselmeyer (Fabian Reimair), a family friend and uncle to the handsome boy of the romance. The older Clara was portrayed, on the evening I saw the production, by Alina Cojocaru. Ms Cojocaro captured the essence of a young girl on the edge of womanhood, a little gauche at times but spontaneous and passionate. Drosselmeyer’s nephew (Cesar Corrales) is a strong, athletic dancer, performing the most amazing grands jétés and sauts de basque seemingly effortlessly in his solo dance in the grand pas de deux with Clara. This is the pièce de resistance of the ballet, fairly traditional, but accomplished (a little fumbling in some lifts though) and tender; theirs is an excellent partnering. The third notable dancer is the nutcracker (James Forbat). I liked very much his fiery interaction with the mice. 

Mention must also be made of the corps de ballet. In the snowflake scene the dancers were crisp and graceful; as flowers they were in perfect unison. Act ll at the puppet theatre gives the opportunity for different styles of dance to be performed – Spanish, Arabian, Chinese. The most outstanding of these was the Russian dance by the male dancer (Ken Saruhashi) replete with travelling leaps. The children from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts were remarkable too, and added to the excitement of the performance, especially the boys on their hobby horses.  There were lots of touches of humour too – soldiers killed by cheese, Freddie in a strop, a forgetful grandmother and her long-suffering, if controlling, husband and the escape from danger by air balloon.

Of course the narrative is accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s marvellous score played by the ENB Philarmonic under the direction of Gavin Sutherland. Wayne Eagling, the choreographer, has merged the music and the steps magically and his talent is emulated by that of the outstanding dancers of the English National Ballet. 

This is one ballet not to be missed.

 

 ENB Nutcracker is at Milton Keynes Theatre until 26th November

 www.atgtickets.com

 0844 871 7653

 Booking fee applies

 

 

 

Nov 15th

Relatively Speaking at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

Reviewed by Alison Smith 14th November 2016  

Alan Ayckbourn’s play, Relatively Speaking had its premiere in 1965 during the decade of the sexual revolution and changes in social conventions. In the 60s a young lady with an ‘interesting’ past – well four to five lovers - and a young man, recently deflowered, who cohabit after knowing each other for a month may have seemed outré, but in 2016 anything goes. For this reason the first act of Relatively Speaking is fairly dull stuff. Nobody is even mildly shocked by a young couple living together, nor by male (almost) nudity in the Home Counties on a Monday evening in November. Still this act is crucial for the scene setting. Greg (Antony Eden) is somewhat concerned about some objects in his girl’s bedsit – bouquets of flowers, gifts of chocolates, a pair of man’s black slippers and strange phone calls. 

The young lady in question, Ginny (Lindsey Campbell) claims she has forsaken all others for Greg, but doubt exists in his mind and when she purports to visit her parents for the weekend he decides to follow, having found an address handily scribbled on a cigarette packet. Of course the house is not her parents’ house at all, but that of her middle aged sugar daddy; the fun begins when Greg arrives at the house before Ginny.

This is the start of a perfectly-constructed comedy in middle England with middle-class people. And it is their conventional class behaviour which causes most laughter. Sheila, (Liza Goddard) is the wife of Ginny’s soon-to-be-ex-lover, Philip  (Robert Powell). Their marriage is going through difficulties, but following the social rules of the day she remains the dutiful wife, subservient to her husband and accepting of his idiosyncrasies.  Liza Goddard plays her role beautifully, slightly dippy but charming and polite, so polite in fact that she does not inquire who Greg is – that would not be form. Philip is a grump; a middle-aged, egotistic man going through his mid-life crisis and uncomfortable at lunch between his wife and his mistress.  And even though he is playing away from home he is jealous of his wife’s trip to Kent and letters she receives. In fact infidelity is the crux of the play and with that arises deeper issues of honesty and trust, which both couples have to face. But the depiction of Philip and Sheila’s long marriage is a master class of understanding and tenderness. 

Ayckbourn’s script is skilfully written; it is replete with clever innuendos and droll misunderstandings.The interpretation of the script by the four actors is perfect and their comic timing excellent; the repartee is batted back and forth seemingly effortlessly and this further emphasises the quality of the writing.

The second set is idyllic – a substantial house with climbing wisteria, potted plants, well-trimmed privet hedges. The garden looks its best in the summer sunshine and this is the perfect backdrop to the drama that evolves – a young couple starting out on a shared life and the older couple coming to the realisation that they mean the world to each other.

This is not a world shattering drama; it is cosy and comforting,somewhat nostalgic but principally very funny.

Relatively Speaking is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 19th November. 

www.atgtickets.com 

0844 871 7652 

Booking fee applies

 

Nov 11th

Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

Reviewed by Alison Smith 10th November 2016 

Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain has the subtitle ‘The Essence of Opera Revealed’ and Thursday’s performance was, for me, just that, a revelation. The performance was an educational opportunity for both novices and keen opera fans to understand the complexities of staging an opera – the music for each character, the role of the chorus, the importance of each instrument and the costumes of the singers. Opera has always been considered a high-brow music genre and to have it demystified in an amusing, down-to-earth manner was enlightening. 

I am a newcomer to opera and so I was delighted by the explanations given by Paul Rissmann. Rissmann appeared immediately after the overture and for the rest of the evening delighted the audience with his interviews, videos and even games. In the first Act there were musical excerpts from Don Giovanni with explanations of some of the different singing styles such as recitativo, which echoes the natural rhythms of speech and pushes the drama forward, arias which reveal the feelings and emotions of the character and slow the dramatic movement. 

In Don Giovanni the title character is a serial seducer of women and the murderer of the Commendatore ( Andrii Goniukov). Duncan Rock plays Don Giovanni and seeing him on the stage out of the seducer’s role, chatting to Rissmann, emphasised the magic that is a transformation into a believable opera character. The women who Giovanni pursues, Donna Anna (Ana Maria Labin), Donna Elvira (Magdalena Molendowska) and Zerlina (Louise Adler) reveal their characters through their interpretations of Mozart’s score. Elvira’s music had a constrained rhythm, which echoed the woman’s frustrated, regulated upbringing, while Zerlina, a peasant girl, was portrayed with gentle melody. Anna’s music was coloratura, a richly ornamented melody underscoring her pain. My school Italian did not help me to understand the words, but Mozart’s music for each role and the women’s musical expression were the keys to capture their emotions.  And of course there were the wonderful English supertitles above the stage! 

Act 2 included the dramatic finale of the opera in all its bloody glory, a grave used as a dinner table, a corpse as a guest and Don Giovanni damned to eternal hell fire. (impressive lighting and smoke effects for this).The dark music echoed the supernatural situation, the tragic mood delineated by the trombones; the deep bass of the Commendatore juxtaposed with the pitiful baritone of the sinner. After Don Giovanni’s death the other characters, the non-sinners, refocused their lives, Giovanni’s servant Leporello striving to find a better master, Elvira determined to enter a nunnery and the couples seeking to live happily ever after.

 This performance was well worth seeing – next time for me the complete opera Don Giovanni the Drama Giocoso. I am a convert!

 

Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni: Behind The Curtain 

Thursday November 10th

 

www.atgtickets.com 

0844 871  7652 

Booking fee applies

 

Nov 10th

Madame Butterfly at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

 By Clare Morris

Cio-Cio- San ( Karah Son) proudly displays her new wedding ring watched by Pinkerton (Matteo Lippi) © Glyndeborne Productions Ltd. Photo: Clive Barda

Jerome K Jerome had the theory that all songs had the same plot: ‘There lived a lass, and there came a lad, who loved and rode away’.  This certainly holds true in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, though with the added twist of the lad returning, but only to rub salt into the wounds. Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy undertakes an arranged marriage with a young geisha known as Madame Butterfly, which she regards as binding but he has a more flexible view.  He returns to America leaving Butterfly behind and she spends the next three years awaiting his return along with the son that she bore him, of whom Pinkerton is unaware.  Pinkerton does return, not to take up with Butterfly again, but with a new American wife and they ask Butterfly to give up her son to them.  Butterfly realises that all hope of a reunion is over and takes her own life.

 The opera is set in early twentieth century Japan, but Annilese Miskimmon’s new production for Glyndebourne has been updated to the 1950’s which does cause a few problems with the story line. The production has a gritty rather than a conventional, pretty cherry blossom staging which underscores Pinkerton’s betrayal of a naïve and innocent child bride. Small points such as the copious amounts of cash being counted by Goro the marriage broker and the perfunctory confetti throwing by the secretaries, indicates clearly to it being little better than prostitution. This is further underlined by the prospective brides being displayed in a slide show as wares to be bought and sold.  This need to emphasise the reality of the situation does mean that the plot has become a bit of a square peg in a round hole.  Having their house displayed as a model when they should actually be inside it, really doesn’t work. The finale with the great love duet seems out of place in an office and why Goro allowed himself to be thrown out of his own bureau is inexplicable. In this first act the romance has been sacrificed to allow a different emphasis to the plot which unfortunately does not come off. Nicky Shaw’s sepia tinted sets are dull and whilst a change from the conventional gorgeous sets is understandable, the final result is visually unappealing and underwhelms at times.

 The flat carved cherry trees work much better in the second act and produce a charming frame for a silhouette of Butterfly and her son awaiting Pinkerton.

Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son) & Sorrow await Pinkerton © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo:Clive Barda

Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son) & Sorrow await Pinkerton © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo:Clive Barda

 In the third act, the twisting of the plot to fit the set again does not work so well. Butterfly’s attempts at becoming and ideal American wife in dress and at home are clever and sadly pathetic when contrasted with the real thing in Pinkerton’s new wife.  The death scene, however, is distinctly odd with Butterfly committing suicide behind her son whilst he plays with a toy ship. As she was sacrificing herself for his benefit, this failure to accept that he will then be left alone in a locked room with his mother’s blood stained corpse does not sustain belief.

 Musically, this is very enjoyable.  This is John Wilson’s first foray into opera after a highly successful career in films and, based on this production, will not be his last.  He brings out fine subtleties in the score and show a careful eye for detail. The Korean Karah Son is generally a fine Butterfly though on occasion her voice can become lost.  Her exquisite singing of Un bel di certainly brought a tear to my eye, though I would have preferred a more pianissimo opening like the wisp of smoke of which she is indeed singing. Matteo Lippi makes a fine Pinkerton and displays an effortless charm that would surely be needed in a bigamist who can attract two wives who both want to keep him, even when his infamy is clear. Francesco Verna was in fine voice as Sharpless and deservedly popular.

 This production may not appeal to traditionalists or to theatre goers who want a sumptuous visual spectical, as a well as fine music, but it is thought provoking and musically it is well worth seeing, with the orchestra being simply marvellous.

Madame Butterfly is at Milton Keynes Theatre on Saturday 12th November

 www.atgtickets.com

 0844 871 7652

 Booking fee applies

Nov 2nd

The Commitments at Milton Keynes Theatre

By Alison Smith

The Commitments at Milton Keynes Theatre

 Reviewed by Alison Smith 

The best- selling novel, The Commitments, was written by Roddy Doyle in 1987. The musical is faithful to the book thanks to Roddy Doyle as the executive producer, while Caroline Jay Ranger is the director.

The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, reflects the lives of a group of unemployed, Irish youngsters from city sink estates; the scene is grey – the sky, the buildings, their futures. Their lives centre on dole queues, spit and sawdust pubs and seedy community halls, but the set windows open to reveal brighter rooms within, a metaphor for music opening up their world to places beyond the Liffey. There are light moments to brighten the scene – a small Christmas tree, a red scooter,   Dublin showers - thanks to a man with a hose pipe.

The teenagers are a mismatched crew. Music mad Jimmy Rabbitte, (Andrew Linnie) tries to start a band; he advertises, he holds auditions, which come to nothing. So he decides to start the band with people he knows, and that is the beginning of The Commitments – committed to Soul music. Standing out  amongst the motley crew of twelve are Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan ( Alex McMorran) – a trumpet player, teacher and old lecher, and the lead singer, Deco ( Brian Gilligan), a dislikeable, arrogant brute, saved by his one gift – a strong, soulful voice. It is Deco who eventually causes the band to split up after much water has flown along that famous dirty river and after many arguments about sex and Soul music. The band’s language is funny, crude and coarse; there are ‘feckings’ galore, but the music compensates, for when the cast sings they are a joy. The female interest for the boys in the band are Natalie (Amy Peston), Imelda (Leah Penston) and Bernie (Christina Tedders). These girls have great vocal ranges and all the right moves for backing singers.

The story does not have a happy ending; the music contract does not materialise and fortune is not made. The members of the band disperse and Joey goes back to America. The one positive outcome is a blossoming relationship between Jimmy and Imelda. Who knows where that may lead? 

But what music!  There must be around twenty Soul classics, including River Deep Mountain High, Try a Little Tenderness and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, all performed with great emotion. In fact it is the songs which are the saving grace. When the story has run its course the audience is presented with a great medley with Brian Gilligan, no longer the self-centred Deco, centre stage and belting out excellent renditions of soul songs. 

The Commitments is at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 5th November

 

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