Top of the Pops

Popup Opera present L’elisir D’amore at Blacks, Soho.

image003As operas go, L’elisir D’amore stretches the viewer’s credibility surprisingly little, story-wise.  Donizetti’s opera is a simple story of unrequited love which becomes requited, with merely a love potion, a flour magnate and a wealthy uncle to complicate things, which allows one to concentrate upon the music and the performance, both being worthy of our attention.

Popup Opera specialise in unusual spaces, and this venue (a small room in a private club in Soho) is certainly that.  Reminiscent of Studio 503, where I saw some wonderful Chekhov last year, the performers are almost literally in your lap.  (Ricardo Panela, making his entrance as Belcore, tripped over my feet, looked at me and said “I’m sorry” and then started to sing).  This close up view allows the audience to appreciate much that might go unnoticed in a larger space in terms of emotional acting, and also the ‘comedia’ style, which the company employ to great effect.

A common reviewer’s complaint is that it is difficult to single out individuals for special praise; in this case it is impossible: not because nobody stood out, but because everyone was outstanding.  Cliff Zammit Stevens, as Nemorino (the only tenor role) played the lovesick young man to perfection and gave a piercingly beautiful rendition of Una Furtiva Lagrima (the opera’s most famous aria), despite performing it with a box of man-size tissues in hand.  Ricardo Panela gave a commanding performance as Belcore, the pyramid flour salesman who almost wins the girl.  Thomas Kennedy put his rich baritone and pantomime skills to excellent use as Dulcamara, the patent medicine man.  Penelope Manser is a powerful soprano and talented comic, who really came into her own in the second act.  Clementine Lovell was seemingly effortlessly delightful, charming and compelling both vocally and in terms of stage presence throughout as Adina.  Add to that the fact that Clementine is also the producer (aided by assistant and extremely creative stage manager Fiona Johnston) and founder of the company, and my admiration is guaranteed.

image008It is difficult in a small venue to keep the volume to a comfortable level while still keeping full passion and power in the voice, but all five of the singers managed this brilliantly.  Musical director James Henshaw provided strong musical accompaniment which ranged from highly moving to, at times, having the flavour of a silent comedy movie.  Harry Percival’s quirky captions also contributed greatly to the humour of the piece (they’re funny, yeah?).  Darren Royston did a marvellous job, both as director and MC.

I think this is probably the best opera I’ve ever reviewed.  Go and see for yourself, but be warned: there is audience participation (of a mild and unthreatening sort!)

L’elisir D’amore will be popping up at various venues around London throughout April.  For more information visit popupopera.co.uk.

Mary Tynan

Sun, Sea and Shootings

One of the basics of creating a play is selecting a subject.  When writing about factual events and recent history, this becomes even more important.  Gibraltar is a good choice.  It was a big story at the time – widely discussed and highly controversial – but it was long enough ago to seem fresh to current audiences, some of whom will be too young to remember the events portrayed or the political climate in which they occurred.

In a nutshell, the play is about the shooting – in Gibraltar in 1988 – of three unarmed members of the IRA by the SAS and the legal, political and media discourse in its aftermath concerning the lawfulness, or otherwise, of the killings.

On entering Studio 2 in the Arcola, the first objects to catch the eye are the 1980s-style televisions hanging from the studio on three sides of the stage (presumably the work of AV and Sound Designer Marco Devetek), all showing a still of the Rock of Gibraltar with the play’s title across it in a suitably old-fashioned font: slightly reminiscent of short-lived soap opera Eldora.  These screens were used to good effect throughout the production: enhancing the minimal set; naming the characters (for instance during Geoffrey Howe’s speech) and displaying a test card throughout the interval.  In an amusing touch at the end of the play, the screens were cleverly utilised to display TV-style credits for all involved.

I was very impressed by Set and Costume Designer Cordelia Chisholm’s attention to detail: the props and costumes were perfectly of the time, even down to the jewellery and hairstyles of the female actors.  The set itself was minimal, which works well for a play of this type with actors playing multiple characters and fast scene changes.  The lighting, by Mike Robertson, was very helpful in this respect.

Particularly in the second half, when the energy seemed to be higher, George Irving, Karina Fernandez, Greer Dale-Foulkes and Billy McColl all gave fascinating performances.  Karina Fernandez for me was the most compelling, especially when transferring between characters with consummate ease.  The play’s direction, by James Robert Carson, showed a lightness of touch with some interesting quirky features: I particularly enjoyed the SAS’s drunken singing.

In their telling of the story, writers Alastair Brett and Sian Evans do not seem to intend to direct the audience’s thoughts or opinions, nor is the direction that way inclined.  My personal interpretation was that Margaret Thatcher and her government had manipulated the press for their own ends, but another viewer could come away with quite a different impression.  For this reason, as well as for all the other persuasive arguments in its favour, I would strongly advise you to see this play and construe the events of 1988 for yourself.

Gibraltar is at the Arcola theatre until Saturday, 20 April, at 8pm nightly, with 3pm matinees on Saturdays.  For more information visit http://www.arcolatheatre.com.

Mary Tynan