NOTE: The following review dates from January 2010 and this production's original run at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn. Aspects of the script have been updated to set the story in Soho for the run at Soho Theatre.
OperaUpClose’s pared-down production of La bohème isn’t just updated and set in Kilburn; it drags Kilburn into the opera itself, with a backdrop of red buses, the High Road’s Poundland and the teeming reality of everyday life whipping away the cosy sequesteredness we’re used to in the theatre.
For Act 2’s Café Momus, director Robin Norton-Hale ingeniously transfers the audience to the pub downstairs, an obvious choice but a brave one, with bemused real-life punters threatening to invade the action and an edgy unpredictability as passers-by peer in through the front window and singers spill onto the streets. If Puccini’s never seen the like, Kilburn hasn’t either.
The café scene works marvellously, a 360 degree experience, the pub’s clientele enjoying some free entertainment as the action swells and bubbles around and through the audience. Musetta and Alcindoro (a voluptuous Annabel Mountford and beautifully contrasting, dilapidated David Freedman at the performance I saw) enter the front door, amidst real-life customers, only identifiable when they burst into song.
Acts 1 and 4 sit comfortably in the room upstairs. What’s more fitting for a student flat than the real thing? Let’s face it, the Cock Tavern could probably increase its income by using it for that purpose rather than turning it over to a theatre company (but don’t tell them). Act 3 presents greater challenges which the production doesn’t quite overcome and things start to resemble a concert performance, with an awkward line-up at the front, but one of the most beautiful slices of opera ever written still works its magic.
Norton-Hale’s adaptation of the script wittily incorporates plenty of local flavour and brings the story bang up to date, with references to Gordon Brown and Jedward, while steering clear of panto ghastliness.
Hearing Puccini’s glorious score banged out on a piano, a few bum notes included, certainly makes you hear it in a different way. The cast is youthful and believable. You’re unlikely to see so convincing a group of students outside of a college production, but with the added dash of relaxation and polish that comes with the burgeoning careers of young professionals.
If you want to hear “Che gelida manina” given real justice, you’ll need to reach for your recordings of Björling, Bergonzi or Pavarotti but as much could be said for almost any performance at the capital’s main houses. The singing here – the performances are split between two and half casts and I got Anthony Flaum (Rodolfo), Rosie Coad (Mimi) and Michael Davis (Marcello) - is good enough.
The first of what I very much hope will be an ongoing programme of opera at the Cock Tavern, this venture has bags of charm and bucketloads of sincerity. OperaUpClose does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s in your face and gets under your skin. I’ll confess to shedding more tears here than at the Royal Opera’s current revival. Opera with the gloves off.