We’re not meant to take Michael Barker-Caven’s production of Sheridan’s play The Duenna at face value. It’s the 18th century equivalent of a 20th century musical comedy and as such involved the participation of more than just a couple of creators; the musical numbers come fresh or in arrangement from the Linleys (Sheridan’s father- and brother-in-law) and other popular contemporary sources. They are all tuneful, if not particularly memorable out of this context.
The setting by Adam Wiltshire is a flexible one, on several levels and involving skeleton doors, house-fronts and interior rooms. During the overture we are introduced to the players – think Hogarth’s painting of Actors in a Barn – with a masked manipulator of situations and the singer who will play only simple confidents but in compensation is furnished with the loveliest music. Then it’s straight into the amorous entanglements of two sets of young lovers, determined to wed in spite of family opposition, and three members of the older generation, each of whom has a double agenda.
Singing, speaking and acting are all of a high standard with Richard Suart a choleric Don Jerome as wrong-headed and peppery as his antiquated blunderbuss and Nuala Willis as the chaperone who sees elopement as a means to her own ends. Both earn well-deserved applause. Olivia Safe is a sweet-voiced Clara, wooed and eventually won by Don Jerome’s son Ferdinand (Damien Thantrey), while penniless Antonio (Joseph Shovelton) gains his friend’s sister Louisa (Charlotte Page), a sparky principal heroine.
18th century English audiences expected people of non-Anglican faiths to be portrayed as figures of fun, when not actual outright villains. So Isaac Mendoza, the converted Jew who is Don Jerome’s preferred husband for Louisa, is meant to be laughed at; Adrian Thompson) nearly makes him credible. Jonathan Gunthorpe sings superbly as servant Lopez and Isaac’s friend Carlos both in his solo airs and in the trios. Joseph McHardy conducts from the harpsichord with rococo flair.