Just two months after their successful production of Donizetti’s L'Elisir d'amore, OperaUpClose are back at the King's Head Theatre with a collaborative adaptation of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (through 25 May). Though the new production could do with more energy and pace, it's a clever and relevant take on the story of King Gustav III's assassination in eighteenth-century Sweden. The setting: a present-day Ikea, here called 'Ballo'.
As the opera lays out its plot – a menacing employee has threatened the life of Riccardo (Paul Featherstone), the store manager, who loves Amelia (Laura Hudson), the wife of his best friend and assistant manager, Renato (Mark Holland) – the adaptation satirises managers' mistreatment of employees and the struggle to get by on minimum wage. Riccardo's tragic flaw, we see, is arrogance, and the employee Ulrica (Emelie Joenniemi) must moonlight as an astrologer to make ends meet.
The comedy that’s injected into this Ballo initially deflates the stakes of the story, but succeeds in drawing the audience in. After an animated summary of the original story projects on the walls (which we didn't need), lights come up on Amelia, Ulrica and Riccardo's PA Oscar (Alan Richardson) struggling to assemble a table – and the audience's laughter is one of recognition. Lyrics allude to ABBA songs (Oscar sings of Amelia: 'You'll be my dancing queen!'). Oscar, a male soprano, writes with a white feathered pen and reads Hello!. Some of the furniture has the trademark Ikea tag.
Though the cast don't fully feel like an ensemble and could do with more energy and movement, their singing is strong. Amelia's aria in Act II is sung entirely at the upstage wall, and when Oscar joins her for their duet, they largely stay there. Having Amelia move and engage with the audience would heighten the pathos of her state; the audience, sat on three sides around the stage, delight in the cast's interactions with them elsewhere in the show. As in the recent Elisir, the audience participate through themed headwear, donning yellow and blue masks for the climactic masked ball. When the ball arrives at the end, with yellow and blue balloons on the floor and the accompanying pianist (Ben Woodward) playing the keyboard onstage, the cast’s dancing provides a welcome jolt.
Ballo's set and costumes are a feast of Ikea yellow and blue: blue carpet along the floor, yellow upstage wall and costumes including a blue wig for Ulrica, a shiny blue suit for Oscar and a blue and yellow motorbike jacket for the villain and store cleaner Tom (Dickon Gough). The design is purely decorative rather than embodying the opera's themes, but it sets the production's cheeky and relatively light tone.