Tag Archives: Jennifer Davis

Bells and Whistle

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 7th March, 2019

 

I jumped at the chance to see this production again, having first enjoyed it a couple of years ago.  Director Dominic Cooke sets the action in a box, with walls the colour of a Magritte sky and sets of doors that lend an almost-farcical aspect to proceedings.  The influence of Magritte does not stop with the sky; Sarastro’s cult members all sport bowler hats and coats very much akin to the famous surrealist painting – you know the one, where the man has an apple for a face.

In this box, Mozart’s divine music and Schikaneder’s amusing libretto (here presented in a superlative translation by Jeremy Sams, complete with rhyming couplets) combine to tell the story of a young Prince on a fairy-tale quest to save a Princess.  From the opening moments, with a giant lobster trying to grab him with its claws and the arrival of the Three Women, the stage is set for a lot of fun.  The Three Women (Jennifer Davis, Kezia Bienek, and Emma Carrington) are a collective hoot, and Cooke gives them plenty of comic business as they vie with each other over the unconscious Prince.  Ben Johnson’s Prince Tamino is dashing and forthright, singing beautifully, as when he falls in love at first sight of Pamina’s portrait.

Stealing the show in every scene he’s in is Mark Stone, hilarious as the bird-catcher Papageno.  In some productions, the dialogue scenes can be clunky and awkward, but in the hands of someone like Stone, they are a delight.

Soprano Anna Siminska is a powerful Queen of the Night.  Her second, most famous aria brings the house down.  Her oppo, high priest Sarastro, is her polar opposite.  While Siminska hits her Top Fs with piercing accuracy, Jihoon Kim gets to his Bottom Fs, but could do with a bit more power behind them.  Kim makes a striking figure as the cult leader; Sarastro’s rules for the way women ought to behave can seem problematic, but his solos are exceedingly beautiful.

Anita Watson makes a perfect fairy-tale princess as a heartfelt Pamina.  Her aria when she believes Tamino is shunning her remains one of the most heartrending moments in any opera, and Watson delivers the goods impeccably.

This is a production that doesn’t get bogged down by the pomp (and pomposity) of Sarastro’s order, with plenty of laughs throughout, both from the script and from the direction.  What happens when Tamino plays his flute or when Papageno plays his magic bells is charming and funny.

Inevitably, the star is Mozart.  His music adds humour, pathos, and, yes, holiness to the characters in this quest for love.  The opera is a plea for the end to hatred, for living in peace, a message that we need to hear in these nasty-minded times.

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Tamino (Ben Johnson) finds his lobster undercooked (Photo: Bill Cooper)

 

 

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Sorry State

(sorry)

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th November, 2017

 

Millennials are terrible, aren’t they?  Spoiled, impatient, thinking they’re special…  This new piece from writer Susie Sillett shows us three sides of the coin (if that’s possible!) in this monologue sequence engagingly performed by Phoebe Frances Brown.

The first section concerns employment or should I say ‘employment’ as our protagonist details her exploitation in unpaid internships, illegally long shifts – it’s no wonder she and her peers are still living with their parents.  The character both recognises and accepts her lot as though this is the way it is and shall be forevermore – and she makes it clear she’s not complaining.  She daren’t!  Not while she wants to continue on the way up.

The middle section is a cringe-making dinner date with an old friend who is getting married.  This one quickly flips into something painful to hear, and painful to experience, as our protagonist recounts the agonies of online friendships, and how deeply that ‘unfollowing’ or ‘unfriending’ can hurt.  The modern world forges new kinds of relationships and associations through social media – new behaviours and mores have to be negotiated.  But it all does nothing to assuage her loneliness.  It’s an incisive swipe at society, when all these new connections serve to keep us isolated and alone.

The third part finds our protagonist keeping watch beside her dying granny’s hospital bed.  This is the most emotionally affecting section and is more widely reflective of the nature of life.  The writing opens up beyond the personal as our protagonist considers her place in the world, being born at this time, the environment she is inheriting and the problems her generation have to sort out.  Stark comments like ‘no matter what I do, it’s never enough to compensate the damage I do by being alive’.  She can’t make sense of being alive and her reactions and attitude are thoroughly credible.  Forged by what previous generations have done, she is trapped in a world she didn’t make.  And she is sorry for existing.

The show has a strong green message: the seas are full of plastic, of the detritus of our consumerist society.  Our protagonist is most strident in her horror and revulsion, her anger and frustration with what has been done to the world.

An electrifying performance from Phoebe Frances Brown; director Jennifer Davis prevents things from becoming static in the simple, circular space, giving us rises and falls, changes in pace and mood to bring out all the colours of the writing.  Sorcha Corcoran’s set – a chair in a circle, ringed by mounds of paper – becomes more relevant as the show goes on, reminiscent of arctic landscapes…  Alex Boucher’s lighting and Iain Armstrong’s sound design support the performer and help the audience imagine the various settings of the stories.

It all adds up to a taut production, a snapshot of life for young adults, with laughs aplenty and pain in abundance – and isn’t it a particularly British thing for those feeling the most awkward, those in the most pain, those who are pointing out what is wrong, to be the ones to say sorry?

thumbnail_(sorry). Photo Hannah Kelly (1)

Sophie Frances Brown considers the pitfalls of buying a can of chick peas (Photo: Hannah Kelly)