West End Girl
Opera Up Close at the King's Head Theatre
Librettists Kfir Yefet and Robert Chevara’s description of the opening scene, set in a café which is ‘essentially tacky, but trying to be respectable’ speaks volumes of this production. Both a refreshing and commendably daring modernisation, the allure of setting Puccini’s Fanciulla in the up-to-date here-and-now has unfortunately left it rather two dimensional.
John Gibbons’ musical arrangements for chamber ensemble give the music an intimacy and immediacy that vindicates the adaptation. The vocal clarity and lyricism of Ben Thapa (Yuri) and Tom Stoddart (Jack Rock) in particular, provide strong leads in such a sparse score, despite being occasionally let down by the libretto.
The narrative is rife with clichés – a seedy underworld of ‘bad money’, rivalry, Eastern European immigrant accented opera singers (to be fair, that’s a new one) and a girl stuck in the middle. Clichés are fine in themselves, however as part of the audience you are in the uncomfortable position of watching the principals, who want to appear committed to delivering a performance of real drama, tension and suspense, make the action unintentionally comic. Demelza Stafford is both charismatic and subtle as Mini, who owns the café which hosts most of the action. Despite her dramatic commitment however, watching her hoist up her fatally injured male lead into the top bunk of a spindly children’s bunk-bed, doesn’t sustain any dramatic tension. It’s just funny. In general, these touches send the whole enterprise down the route of farce.
As a project it highlights both the appeal of the contemporary, but serves as a warning to the dangers of over-indulging to the thrill of the new, and the need to be aware of the old conventions which the audience will be used to.
The dynamism of what Yefet, Chevara and Gibbons are attempting is admirable, even if it didn’t quite get off the ground for this endeavour, but it’ll be interesting to see what they have in store next.
- Rosie Parker