Review: La Tragédie de Carmen at Asylum Chapel

As operas go, Bizet’s Carmen is a good choice for anyone in search of an entry-level option, because chances are most of us know more of the music than we think. In La Tragédie de Carmen, Peter Brook, in collaboration with composer Marius Constant and writer Jean-Claude Carrière, takes this a step further, condensing Bizet’s four-act original – and all its greatest hits – into just 80 minutes. This means we lose all but four of the characters, and instead focus solely on the tragic “love rectangle” between the protagonists.

Photo credit: Ugo Soffientini

Micäela (Alice Privett) arrives from the country looking for her childhood friend Don José (Satriya Krisna), a corporal in the Nationalist army, with whom she’s in love. He, however, has fallen for the seductive Carmen (Chloe Latchmore), who leaves him after a brief romance for Escamillo (James Corrigan), an officer. After trying and failing to win her back, Don José murders his former lover in a fit of passion.

Directed by John Wilkie, Pop-Up Opera’s production of La Tragédie de Carmen is exquisitely performed by the four singers and musical director Berrak Dyer; watching and listening to her perform the opera’s entire score on piano is worth the ticket price all by itself. Though it may be much smaller in scale than a traditional performance of Carmen, there’s nothing half-hearted about this production, which brims over throughout with passion, intensity and obvious talent. As the tragic love story unfolds, a video screen shows images from the Spanish Civil War – which, in this updated version of the story, has just ended – as well as Pop-Up Opera’s trademark minimalist surtitles, which provide us with just enough of a translation to understand the context of each scene, but don’t distract from the action.

Cutting back the story so dramatically has both advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, it’s much shorter and more accessible than the original, with a more straightforward storyline, which makes this an ideal ticket for an opera first-timer. On the other hand, it’s all over so quickly that there’s a risk of the audience not becoming fully invested in Don José’s relationship with Carmen, or appreciating why he reacts so violently to her rejection. This is dealt with, to some extent, by setting the action at the end of the Civil War, and portraying both Don José and his love rival Escamillo as having suffered some trauma as a result of what they’ve seen and experienced during the conflict. In light of his obvious fragility, perfectly captured in Satriya Krisna’s performance, the apparent ease with which Don José is driven to madness doesn’t seem quite so hard to accept.

tps://theblogoftheatrethings.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/pop-up-operas-la-tragecc81die-de-carmen-chloe-latchmore-and-satriya-krisna-photo-by-ugo-soffientini-16.jpg”> Photo credit: Ugo Soffientini[/caption]<

Peter Brook’s aim in writing La Tragédie de Carmen was “to focus on the intense interaction, the tragedy of four people” that lies at the heart of the story. Pop-Up Opera have stayed true to that purpose, and while some may take issue with Brook’s extreme edits, it’s hard to find fault with this particular production of his work. (That said, I do recommend sitting at the front if you can – depending on the venue, some audience members further back may struggle to see what’s happening during the final climactic scene.) Whether you think you like opera or not, this one is certainly worth a visit.

La Tragédie de Carmen continues on tour – for full details visit www.popupopera.co.uk.

Review: Blood Wedding at Omnibus Theatre

Federico García Lorca’s rural tragedy Blood Wedding gets a distinctly urban makeover in George Richmond-Scott’s powerful new adaptation. The production moves the action to modern day London, which allows it to touch on topical issues like Brexit and knife crime – but by keeping the characters Spanish, it doesn’t stray too far from the play’s roots, and the second act in particular (the third in Lorca’s text) retains very effectively the other-worldly atmosphere of the original.

The story centres around three Spanish families. As the widowed Mother (Maria de Lima) struggles to come to terms with the forthcoming marriage of her only Son (Federico Trujillo), the Bride (Racheal Ofori) wrestles with her passion for old flame Leo (Ash Rizi). He’s now unhappily married to her cousin, the Wife (Miztli Rose Neville), and also happens to be a member of the family that murdered the Mother’s husband. When all the characters are brought together at the wedding celebrations, a tragic and violent chain of events is set in motion from which nobody will escape unscathed.

Federico Trujillo and Racheal Ofori (Bride and Groom) low res. pic credit Nick Arthur Daniel
Photo credit: Nick Arthur Daniel

While the first act draws us into the family drama, the second, much shorter act has a very different style, as the characters become the playthings of forces far more powerful than themselves. Here the Moon, played by Yorgos Karamalegos as a sinuous and sinister figure, stalks the city streets, where he’s joined by Death in the form of a homeless woman (Maria de Lima) and together the two conspire to ensure the final confrontation takes place. The stark contrast in tone, which encompasses everything from language to physical style to lighting and sound, makes these final brutal scenes feel almost dream-like in comparison to the very naturalistic opening act.

George Richmond-Scott has, for the most part, remained true to Lorca’s plot – albeit with a few characters cut – but updated it for the 21st century. So a horse becomes a motorbike, and a vineyard turns into a restaurant; there are frequent references to the impact of Brexit and the possibility of returning home to Spain. Though this inevitably means a little of the poetry is lost, there are still moments where Lorca’s familiar words shine through, such as in the Mother’s obsessive horror of knives (which, ironically, could have been written yesterday) and in the Bride’s final passionate plea for, if not forgiveness, then at least understanding. His presence is also strongly felt in Camilla Mathias’ haunting live music, which, as with the rest of the play, offers an original take on cante jondo, the traditional folk music that played such an important part in Lorca’s life and work.

Camilla Mathias and Maria de Lima (Friend and Mother) low res PIC CREDIT Nick Arthur Daniel
Photo credit: Nick Arthur Daniel

In a play that places a strong emphasis on the role of women, Maria de Lima stands out with her performance as the Mother. At first easy to dismiss as a bossy, overprotective matriarch – almost, at certain moments, a comic figure – she ultimately becomes the emotional heart of the play, and her final scene is almost unbearable to watch in its tragic intensity. Racheal Ofori and Miztli Rose Neville are similarly impressive as the Bride and the Wife, who are both trapped into unwanted marriages by the pressure of family and society to secure their futures, but who deal with their situation in quite different ways.

The tragic conclusion of Blood Wedding – which was inspired by real events – serves as a powerful reminder of the futility of violence, whether in 1930s Spain (Lorca himself was executed by Nationalist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War, when he was just 38 years old) or in 21st century London, where knife crime continues to increase at alarming rates. As we watch the surviving characters grieve, we can’t help but be struck by the pointlessness of the rivalry, social ambition and deception that have laid the foundations for so much devastating loss. In this respect, the play adapts very well to its new time period and physical setting – even though that may tell us more about the unchanging nature of humanity than we really want to know.

Blood Wedding is at the Omnibus Theatre until 23rd September.


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Review: Foul Pages at The Hope Theatre

To quote the timeless classic Shakespeare in Love (not sarcasm, I love that movie): “Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.” Robin Hooper clearly subscribes to the same belief; his play Foul Pages has both – and Shakespeare too, though in this case it’s not him who’s in love but pretty much everyone else. Will, meanwhile, is more interested in refining his latest work, As You Like It, whilst fending off interference from the Countess of Pembroke, a fellow writer full of helpful suggestions, and from King James I, who’s become infatuated with one of the actors and insists that he be given the lead role. The purpose of the production is to charm the monarch into pardoning Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s days from execution for treason – but pleasing the king comes at a cost for more than one member of the company.

Oh, and there’s also a talking dog.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Ian Hallard appears as Shakespeare, but such are the scandalous goings on that for once the legendary playwright isn’t the centre of attention. As his all-male company is torn apart by jealousy, ambition and more than a little sexual tension, all Will can do is watch in bemusement and do his best to hold everything together, along with straight-talking maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and the king’s devoted Scottish bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding).

Meanwhile it’s the more flamboyant characters – Lewis Chandler’s shunned actor Alex, Clare Bloomer’s eccentric Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and Tom Vanson’s lovelorn King James – who take centre stage, each driven by their own desires to take potentially catastrophic actions. There’s poignant work from Thomas Bird and Greg Baxter as actors Rob and Ed (also Shakespeare’s brother), whose fledgling relationship is threatened by the king’s interference. And then there’s Chop the dog, played to scene-stealing perfection by James King, who’s not only got all the animal behaviours down but also gets the most laughs, with wry observations on the bizarre human behaviour going on around him.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Though the action is set in 1603, director Matthew Parker gives the production a modern twist; the costumes are an intriguing mix of 17th and 21st century, and rapid scene changes are punctuated by loud music and flashing lights, creating a sense of urgency as the stakes become ever higher and events take an unexpectedly tragic turn. Rachael Ryan’s economical set allows us a glimpse of goings on both upstairs and downstairs at Wilton, while still somehow allowing enough room on the tiny Hope stage for nine people to come out and treat us to an energetic jig at the end of the show.

There’s a political detour in the plot that doesn’t quite fit – it arrives out of nowhere and is just as quickly dealt with and forgotten – but that aside, Foul Pages is a compelling and irresistibly entertaining tale of love, lust and theatrical ambition that may just make you see As You Like It, and Shakespeare himself, in a whole new light.

Foul Pages is at The Hope Theatre until 17th March.

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Review: Helen at the Hen and Chickens

If today we’re all too familiar with the concept of fake news, Euripides was a few centuries ahead of his time when he wrote Helen in 412 BC. An alternative view on the Trojan War, the play argues that Helen – whose seduction by Paris was the cause of the decade-long conflict – was actually in hiding in Egypt the whole time, while the Helen taken to Troy was no more than a copy created by the goddess Hera to punish Paris. Unfortunately, nobody knows about this, so they all blame Helen for the devastation waged in her name, leaving her desperate to expose the lie and save her reputation.

The story’s picked up in Egypt following the fall of Troy, when who should arrive shipwrecked and scantily clad on their shores but Helen’s husband Menelaus. His phantom wife conveniently vanishes into thin air just as he re-encounters the real one, and together they trick the Egyptian king Theoclymenus – who wants to marry Helen himself – into letting them go.

This new version of Euripides’ play comes from Theatre of Heaven and Hell, a company dedicated to producing absurdist plays and reviving forgotten gems. Helen is a bit of both; a little more comedy than tragedy, it moves through the story at a brisk pace, and doesn’t shy away from exposing its more farcical aspects. There are moments in Michael Ward’s production that feel a bit like Monty Python does Ancient Greece, contrasting sharply with the play’s slightly sinister opening and closing sequences, in which the masked and robed Chorus set the scene to a dramatic soundtrack.

As difficult as it is to categorise, Helen nonetheless makes for an entertaining hour of theatre. The women come out on top – Helen herself and the prophetess Theonoe, played by Elena Clements and Sarah Day-Smith respectively – emerge not only with the most dignity but also all the moral fibre, while the men are made to look like fools. Nicholas Bright and Darren Ruston play the famous leaders Menelaus and Theoclymenus as comically simple souls who are nothing without women to tell them what to do, and Brian Eastty and Marius Clements have two of the funniest scenes as messengers who patiently expose their rulers’ mistakes.

A surprising twist on an old story, Helen touches on some very modern themes, from feminism and victim blaming to fake news and the pointlessness of war. The scene in which one of Menelaus’ men questions their reasons for going to war in the first place is funny but painfully topical, and the responsibility placed on Helen’s shoulders for the actions of men invites us to ponder gloomily how much attitudes have really changed several centuries later.

It’s an odd little play, which is nothing like you might expect (let’s be honest: you hear Euripides, you don’t expect lines like, “We went to war for a cloud?”) but Helen is undeniably good – if slightly surreal – fun.


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Review: Doctor Faustus at Theatro Technis

London’s most active amateur theatre company, The Tower Theatre, has been in business for more than 80 years – but shows no sign of getting tired. Their new production of Doctor Faustus at Theatro Technis is dramatic, intense and gripping, and while it may not have Kit Harington in his pants, at least in this version we can all keep track of what’s going on.

Doctor Faustus, or to give Christopher Marlowe’s play its full title, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, is the story of a bored German intellectual, who sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years on Earth, the ability to use magic, and the devoted service of the demon Mephistopheles. The years pass, and Faustus becomes famous all over the world – but it’s only when his time begins to run out that he realises what a huge mistake he’s made.

Photo credit: David Sprecher
Photo credit: David Sprecher
Tower Theatre’s production, directed by Lucy Bloxham, is a relatively traditional interpretation of Marlowe’s text, featuring two central performances that wouldn’t look out of place on a professional stage. Jonathon Cooper is charmingly eccentric as Faustus, skilfully embodying every side of the character: the frustrated genius, the cocky celebrity and the terrified dead man walking. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a man who’s entirely responsible for his own downfall, but Cooper’s Faustus is just likeable enough that we can’t help hoping he’ll find a loophole as his final minutes tick away.

He’s joined by Tower Theatre veteran Robert Reeve as Mephistopheles, the demon charged with sweet-talking Faustus into giving up his soul, and then being his constant companion for 24 years until it’s time to collect on the debt. Dressed all in black, Reeve radiates a quiet authority, and it’s clear from his sly grin whenever Faustus isn’t looking who’s really in control of the situation.

The rest of the cast take on multiple roles, most memorably having a bit of fun with the seven deadly sins (in the case of Lust, played by Matt Cranfield, perhaps a bit too much fun). This and a couple of later scenes provide welcome moments of light relief in what is, let’s face it, not exactly the happiest of stories.

Photo credit: David Sprecher
Photo credit: David Sprecher
First-time director Lucy Bloxham makes effective use of the large stage area at Theatro Technis, with multiple entrances (including the one to hell, which is positioned alarmingly close to the audience) and a curtained off area behind which Lucifer himself appears to Faustus. There’s one slightly clunky set change in Act 2, which could benefit from something for the audience to look at while the furniture’s cleared away, but on the whole transitions between scenes are clean and efficient. And the clock that regularly appears to tick down the minutes until Faustus’ downfall is a nice dramatic touch, as is Adam Taylor’s lighting design, which creates a suitably hellish atmosphere throughout.

Once again, The Tower Theatre Company have made it clear that amateur doesn’t have to mean unprofessional or poor quality. Every member of the company volunteers their time and talent for the sheer love of theatre, and that passion shines through in this and every production I’ve seen. Who needs Kit Harington?


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