According to an interview with playwright Samuel Adamson, Gabriel came about after renowned trumpeter Alison Balsom got in touch with Dominic Dromgoole and asked if she could perform at the Globe. If only it were so easy for us mere mortals! As it turns out, Dromgoole (rightly) thought this would be a great idea and got Adamson to create a play for her.
While this could easily spell disaster for the Globe – their reputation for new writing is somewhat uneven – and while the concept of a series of playlets surrounded by contemporaneous music could have been a dangerous one, it actually works rather well on the whole. Balsom is a huge talent, and to have her on this most unusual stage with an orchestra at her side is a real treat. The playlets, all of which look at life in the era, frequently touch on Purcellian pursuits and on figures from the era of who we know relatively little.
This works most of the time, but not always, as by necessity some of the sketches are more interesting and better fleshed out than others. Thankfully the music, performed by The English Concert orchestra, keeps things bobbing along nicely – the Fifth Act Symphony from King Arthur is particularly beautiful, while Come If You Dare from King Arthur forms a lovely counterpoint to Farewell All Joys. If Dromgoole were to instigate more pure concerts at the Globe, I doubt anyone would object.
The pieces do sometimes lapse into laziness. Early on, Sam Cox's water boatman tells a long, boring anecdote, during which he practically quotes verbatim from Shakespeare in Love – "I had that Purcell in my boat". It's a jarring moment, but thankfully the piece succeeds more in the second half, when we really get down to the nitty-gritty, the dramatic tension and the emotional side of things.
The cast is strong; Jessie Buckley is hilarious as overacting Kate and moving as troubled Arabella. After studying at RADA, this I'd Do Anything graduate has developed into a strong soprano with just the right touch of vibrato. Richard Riddell is a real surprise, very moving as trumpeter John, and in possession of a wonderful voice that can be heard above the masses. And James Garnon (Dr Radcliffe/Briggs/Rake/Husband) is, as ever, the most versatile of the bunch. The man really can do everything from subtle to broad, silly to serious, and is always a delight to watch.
So, is Gabriel worth seeing? It's certainly not perfect, and it won't be to everyone's taste, but for the most part it's great fun, populated by a fantastic cast, orchestra and star trumpeter, as well as the most complicated jig ever seen on the Globe stage. So yes, see it. Revel in it. Drink it in.
- Miriam Zendle