Friday, 20 November 2015

Theatre Review: The Moderate Soprano

You know that thing when you’re up to episode six in your bingewatch of your current TV show of choice and they make a pop culture reference, you know they've made a pop culture reference, but you don’t know what it’s a reference to?

I hate that thing. It annoys me so much. But thanks to the Wikipedia gods that ‘thing’ never progresses to becoming a full blown ‘issue’ (issue is definitely above thing in my hierarchy of annoyance) because you can just pause the show and look the reference up. It’s truly a glorious age to be alive and watching TV.

It becomes a bit more of an issue when it’s not a TV show but a play that’s making the references you don’t understand, though.

Image source.

The Moderate Soprano is David Hare’s new play about the founding of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. And I suppose on one level it’s my own fault that I hadn't spent some time googling potential opera/classical music jokes before seeing it. But on another, higher, better furnished level I shouldn't have to do homework to fully enjoy a play.

Because there are a lot of opera/classical music (in)jokes in this piece that aren't fully accessible to someone who isn't a huge devotee and, without Wikipedia to help me, this did start to grate after a while. The fact that the rest of the (so white, middle aged and middle class you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Chichester) audience evidently found these jokes very funny made the grating even sharper. I don’t like to be made to feel stupid when I'm (largely) not. And it’s not like it’s impossible to write a play about a niche subject and make it accessible to everyone. I know fuck all about nuclear physics but I still loved Oppenheimer.

It’s a shame really because this is an otherwise enjoyably funny play with an enjoyably funny cast. Roger Allam as the pleasingly eccentric John Christie is, unsurprisingly, particularly good in this regard - his clipped, sharp delivery adding joyous comedic zing to his various rants (the one about ticket prices was my favourite). All of the comedy scenes, injokes notwithstanding, zipped along merrily and though none of them are exactly seared on my memory I certainly remember having a good giggle through a good chunk of the play’s brief - intervals, like armrests, are so last year - run time.

The play is far less convincing when it tries to be a serious drama though and to be frank I found most of the serious and emotional scenes just a bit dull. Although the pace is excellent throughout (Director Jeremy Herrin also worked on the RSC’s Hilary Mantel double bill and it shows) the serious scenes, with one exception, are curiously without emotional punch. The most puzzling example is where Christie’s German conductor and producer are explaining their persecution at the hands of the Nazis which should've been touching and sad but I found flat as a pancake. I often felt a bit that the way that Allam's character is written (or performed? I’m honestly not sure) is the problem - his constant propensity to chippily interrupt long speeches by other characters seemed to consistently derail any attempts at building emotional interest.

A real bright spot in this production, and the absolute saving grace when it comes to the emotional stuff, is Nancy Carroll’s performance as Audrey, Christie’s beloved wife and the moderate soprano of the title. She deals with the comedy and serious stuff with equal aplomb and provides the one genuinely heartfelt moment of the piece, as an ailing, ageing Audrey begs to be let go. I will admit to having a small cry.

The staging here is also really effective, using what looks to my untrained eye to be a particularly huge stage to simultaneously portray Christie’s house in two different time periods as well as incorporating elements of the stage and backstage of an opera house. It’s unfussy but clever and a great use of the space.

Overall, then, The Moderate Soprano is a fun comedy with dramatic aspirations it never fully realises. I liked it and I'm sure anyone who knows a bit more about opera would like it even more.

Also worth mentioning is the Hampstead Theatre itself which, honestly, I probably enjoyed more than the play. It’s is another venue crossed off my ‘to visit’ list this year and another I hope to return to. It’s a fantastic building, with crodoughs in their cafe and the most theatrically disconcerting toilets I've ever used - what more could you want?

Happiness a crodough and red wine.

I went for a wee behind Imelda Staunton. Not a phrase I ever thought I'd use.

The Moderate Soprano plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 28th November.

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