Two Right Royal Evenings

CROWN MATRIMONIAL at the Haymarket Theatre.

I once knew an obscure silent film star whose every other sentence involved famous people. She’d speak of meeting Scott Fitzgerald at a dinner given by the King of Spain, but on asking further questions about them, she had very little else to say. I was reminded of her whilst watching CROWN MATRIMONIAL as the first scene set in Marlborough House has the Queen Mary asking her son, on his return from the continent, “How was George of Greece, and did you see Carol of Rumania?” This sort of name dropping is all very well provided it is going to lead somewhere, but apart from a few words, nothing further is mentioned of these famous personages.

Likewise I felt at times as if I were visiting Madame Tussauds, so much did these players resemble the real people in face and dress. Although the plot is familiar, interest is held throughout by the course of events and the dialogue given to the stage Royals. Who can presume how these characters would act and talk when in the privacy of their homes. The author Royce Ryton has used his imagination well. Aided by Wendy Hiller, portraying Queen Mary, one senses the feeling of royalty and grandeur in her every move.

Peter Barkworth playing Edward 7th reminded me of that monarch’s smile and warmth, whilst Amanda Reiss received an ovation on her first entrance for her uncanny resemblance to our present Queen Mother at that time. I was less happy with Andrew Ray’s impersonation of George 6th, feeling he was too young for the role, but in his one big scene he was extremely moving. Lastly the costumes and sets are first rate, and just how I would imagine the interior of a Royal household would look.

I AND ALBERT at the Picadilly Theatre

When one reads of delays of an opening night, hears stories of early previews over-running by 45 minutes, and of the leading man being taken ill and the understudy taking over at short notice, then the signs are surely there that ‘something is rotten in the State of Denmark’, or in this case at the Piccadilly Theatre.

What possessed that fine director John Schlesinger to become involved in all this? I would call it ‘a pageant with music’ as it turned out to be the most talkative musical I’ve yet come upon. The musical score manages to range the entire field of music in one evening, commencing with an oompah pa song about naughty London in the early 1800’s (did I detect some rather risque lyrics well hidden under the blaring orchestra?), a syncopated modern style tune that owed a lot to the song ‘The best is yet to come’, all the way to a tender ballad sung by Prince Albert. The title song ‘I and Albert’ is tuneful, and the ‘Victoria and Albert Waltz’ is a haunting theme used when they first meet. Somewhere in the second half Disraeli stops the show whilst performing conjuring tricks and singing with great panache the sung ‘When You Speak with a Lady’. But this song is out of place with the character and plot so that it takes several minutes to settle back into ‘the plot’ … and oh how that plot goes on and on without really reaching any point. Polly James plays Victoria competently enough, ranging from young womanhood to old age, though one wonders what became of her middle years. At one time the character she portrays was aged around the late 50’s, but there she was giving an impersonation of a woman of 70 – no in-between, alas.

Sven Bertl Taube makes a handsome leading man as Prince Albert. He has a good singing voice and is suitably stiff and solemn as the part calls for. Aubrey Woods and Lewis Fiender play two roles each during the evening as Victoria’s ministers and bring light comic relief to the proceedings. The show would be lost without the two stairways placed on either side of the stage and a great deal of the action is performed on them which involves the cast running about on them ’til one gets almost dizzy watching. After Albert dies, the stage is draped in black mourning, both costumes and curtains are black and there is a feeling of ‘death in the family’ which is almost prophetic of the show itself.

Agonised And Irrepressible

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci
SADLERS WELLS OPERA at the London Coliseum

The agonised and irrepressible twins Cav & Pag returned to the London Coliseum last month in John Blatchley’s production for Sadler’s Wells, which up-dates both operas to what appears to be the fag-end of the 50’s. They are both set in the same Sicilian village, and the action of each opera now takes place only six months apart. The agonies of rustic life in what are the most famous examples of operatic ‘verismo’ are on the surface, therefore, not given a fantastically realistic head-start. With this as background, one might be forgiven for thinking that life in rural Sicily is unrelentlessly tragic. (Imagine two such dramatic deaths in a community of just over a hundred in only six months!)

But no matter how often these operas are performed, or in what manner, they still make an incredible dramatic impact; they still continue to work on an audience. There is a lot in this production, which I thoroughly respect. Many points have been rethought and re-interpreted, points which truly add to the audience’s understanding of the operas. One in particular seems completely successful — the deletion of the ear-biting as a form of challenge before the duel. Instead, Alfio flashes his flick-knife, an action which sets the matter into immediate perspective.

The production was mounted in September last year during a period of financial austerity at the Coliseum, but Blatchley has made it plain in an interview (published as part of the programme notes) that this had nothing to do with the austere style of his staging. (One gently raked platform does for both Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the fluted, metallic grey back-drop remains throughout the evening.) Around 80 per cent of audiences in this country watching a performance in the original language does not understand what is being sung. Blatchley believes that too often these audiences have in the past been compensated for their lack of understanding of the libretto by “over-described decoration” and “an over-expressive, larger than life style of acting”. He feels that this style has permeated all operatic production in Britain, and is himself seeking to establish a subtler approach in the confines of the Coliseum, where one hopes every word may be understood by the audience.

There are two basic premises behind the stark, uncolourful staging. First, the obvious notion that without the fussy detail the audience will be nudged into concentrating on the work itself and not on the pretty accessories.

The second idea raises more interesting and far-reaching questions. Blatchley holds that the events of Cavalleria are “essentially plain and classical”. And with this I would agree. Certainly, it cannot be doubted that the earlier opera does have greater dramatic strength than the play within a play of Pagliacci. It’s true, too, that if we interpret “classical” as meaning Greek classical, then it is certainly true that Cavalleria displays the dogged singularity of plot and dramatic purpose typical of Greek drama. It has no intricate Shakespearean (or perhaps more aptly Verdian) sub-plot, and respects all three unities of time, place and action. But does “plain” simply mean thin? Is opera always more effective when it tells a clearly delineated story?

Even without John Blatchley’s programme notes, his economical staging (which incidentally includes such props as a child’s pram, bicycle, cash register and what looks like the remains of a World War I ambulance lorry from which the actors perform in Pag) after an initial shock reaction does justify itself and intensifies the drama. Blatchley is well served by a sensitive and highly musical cast.

Margaret Curphey sings Santuzza with an exceptionally poignant lyricism and appropriate sense of desperate fatalism. While I had gone to the Coliseum still expecting to hear Rita Hunter’s sharp-edged, powerful and always deeply dramatic soprano, my disappointment was quickly quietened by Margaret Curphey’s achingly pathetic interpretation of the role.

While occasionally, both she and Robin Donald, who plays Turiddu, sounded strained in some of the higher passages, she lacked none of the committed passion so vital to the part. The big test of “Voi lo sapete” was encountered with masterly “breadth” and drive, though lacking to some extent in articulation, and phrasing. My only regret is that she is made to look so dowdy. One wonders how the ‘heart-throb’ of the village would have taken it into his head to rob her of her virginity in the first place!

Ann Hood, playing Lola, both musically and dramatically seductive, is unfortunately decked out in a costume more appropriate for Olympia in “The Tales of Hoffmann”. She sings her delightful little solo, which contrasts so pungently with the harsh tone of the Santuzza-Turiddu encounter, with pure tone, and characterful delicacy.

Raimund Herincx gave a startlingly aggressive edge to his portrayal of Alfio, the murderously jealous husband, whose all-consuming hatred is aroused by Santuzza, who then quickly regrets her passionate outburst. There is no doubting Herincx’s musicality, and here, as in the Coliseum production of Berlioz’ “Faust”, in which he stunned us with his account of Mephistopheles, he gets to the very heart of the character, and clothes its every movement and involuntary twitch with a breathing reality.

Roderick Brydon drove the Sadlers Wells Orchestra to even greater and more exhilirating heights, getting every ounce from Mascagni’s big “production numbers”, and moving orchestral interludes.

Pagliacci seemed to me less of a triumph. Although I applaud some of the production details, (the narrator of the Prologue, here magnificently sung by Derek Hammond-Stroud with every syllable crystal-clear and true, appears in actor’s dressing-gown instead of the usual clown’s costume, for example), the dramatic conviction carried by all the central characters in Cavalleria has not spilled over into its successor.

Anne Evans as Nedda has a more accurate soprano than Margaret Curphey, but somehow her voice seems less subtle, less flexible, less moving. She certainly looked every inch the part, but she failed to capture the audience’s sympathy, and her final murder seems less of a tragedy than just deserts.

Canio, too, seems here more of a pastiche of a Chicago hood than a man tragically consumed, possessed, by the image of one woman and her infidelity. Gregory Dempsey gave tremendous energy to the part, but vocally he lacked the dynamite declamation necessary to bring off the final solo “Pagliacci non son”.

One singer, however, seemed completely in control of his part, both dramatically and musically. It’s a pity then that Silvio, though central to the plot, has relatively little to sing when the part is interpreted with so much artistry as by Norman Welsgey. The rich timbre of his baritone voice reverberated into every niche of the auditorium, he phrased every line with matchless understanding for musical line and dramatic effect, and beguiled Nedda with truly glowing sonority.

Orchestrally, the opera is near impeccable under John Barker’s precise yet passionate direction.

Dilly ‘N’ Starr

HULLA BALOO at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly

Good news for fans of those talented drag artists Rogers and Starr is that they are now to be seen in the West End in a new revue HULLA BALOO. Harold Fielding had the unusual idea of pitting the combined talents of these two with local comedian Jimmy Edwards and that ‘Laugh-In girl’ Chelsea Brown, and it works well.

The curtain rises to show a public convenience with 3 cubicles on either side of the stage and that more or less sets the tone of the humour for the rest of the evening. Rogers and Starr score early on with one of their popular numbers ‘Rape’ and again in the second half with their famous ‘Beyond the Freud’ number which was so popular with the audiences at the Hampstead Theatre Club where they had 2 successful seasons of late night revue 2 years running. Roy Starr repeats his amusing ‘Dear Marje’ takeoff of Marjorie Proops, and Michael Rogers follows with his rather cruel Dietrich impersonation, descending the toilet stairs impeccably gowned in a transparent salmon pink shimmering dress.

In the second act the two of them proceed to demolish ‘Gone With The Wind’ with their hilarious portrayals of Mammie and Prissie the maid. It was interesting to note how enjoyable Jimmy Edwards can be when he stops ad-libbing. His talk on gardening ‘Are you listening, Mary Whitehouse?’ involves some useful information on the growing of roses: ‘First get your beds ready, go easy with the trowel and don’t give ‘er more than 5 inches to start with…’ and he gets good participation from the audience with his song about Enoch Powell. Chelsea Brown looks good and has several numbers to sing, including the title song, an obscure Duke Ellington number ‘Tulip or Turnip’ and one of Michael Rogers’ own songs ‘Powder My Back’.

Giving good support to the stars are two goodlooking boys, Ted Merwood and Roy North, and the talented Marcia Ashton, well known to fans of the Roy Hudd Show on TV and to anyone with a long enough memory as the star of the original production of ‘Cranks’ – nice to see her back in town. The finale involves a hilarious song all about Bums, titled THE END – AND A SONG IN PRAISE OF IT featuring Rogers and Starr in fabulous white creations cut low at the back to expose both their pretty behinds. A fun evening tinged with blue humour, but nothing to really offend anybody.