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Scandal Too Close for Comfort

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Critical hackles are already in the ascendant over the controversial new School for Scandal at the Barbican, which only goes to show that a) its portrait of a decadent, smug, gossipy and morally hypocritical culture is probably a bit too familiar for comfort and b) that most critics would rather settle for the Peter Hall, Theatre Royal Bath view of Sheridan as a nostalgic, museum-bound throw-back.

The idea that the comedy in Sheridan is somehow traduced because it doesn't leave you stroking your tummy with pleasure is particularly crass. It's as though we're losing touch with the subversive and challenging function of theatre, a sense that there is a way of doing the classics that doesn't keep them wrapped in a time warp of cosy familiarity and consumer convenience.

Deborah Warner's production is noisy and aggressive, but it's entirely true to the spirt and the letter of the play. Michael Billington in the Guardian is upset that Leo Bill's crack addict Charles Surface would not be thought of, finally, as virtuous, if he continued his alarmingly expressed habit while simultaneously revealing himself to be true to the memory of his favourite old uncle.

But that surely is a confirmation of the play's major theme: you don't judge a book by its cover, or as Duncan mistakenly says in Macbeth, "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face." And feeling is not the same thing as sentiment, or gesture.

I have seen several productions of The School for Scandal, ranging from Ralph Richardson as Sir Peter Teazle at the Haymarket to the Declan Donnellan RSC version that framed the comedy as a demonstration to a royal court, but none has come as close as Warner's to releasing the full meaning of the play, nor its rich theatrical vitality.

I found myself back at the King's Head in Islington for the first time in ages on Saturday night, checking out Opera Up Close's Dalston version of La boheme.

This is the show that broke all boundaries in the little upstairs room at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, playing the second act in the downstairs pub, and winning the best off-West End production gong at the Whatsonstage.com awards and then, even more sensationally, after transferring to the Soho Theatre, the Olivier best new opera production award.

Since then, the Cock Tavern operation has collapsed, there have been rumblings about lack of even minimal payments for the singers, bailiffs demanding satisfaction, and now the King's Head adventure is looking shaky: yesterday's performances of The Barber of Seville and Pagliacci were both cancelled.

La boheme, though, was packed out and it still remains an extraordinary and utterly absorbing production in Robin Norton-Hale's brilliant new version. Pamela Hay is an outstanding Mimi in the alternating cast, and Louise Lloyd's Musetta one of the best I've seen, kittenish and louche.

The eruption in the pub is much more successful than it was in the Cock, as the room is so much better suited to it, and the clientele more responsive. And they've even solved the problem of making the third act look, illogically, as though it is taking place in Marcello and Rudolfo's  flat instead of outside another pub altogether: the stage is re-lit with a big sign of "The Coach and Horses" which Marcello is now painting instead of his Cubist portraits.

London's Little Opera House is obviously not going under at the King's Head without a struggle. The customers, a mixed bunch of locals, students and regular budget theatregoers received the show with a storm of applause and several ovations.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the Sussex countryside, the Glyndbourne season was opening with six hours of Wagner's Die Meistersinger. I really don't think there's any overlap whatsover betweent he two audiences. But I guess the "in for a penny, in for a pound" La boheme punters would take a chance on The School for Scandal, if they can find tickets that are cheap enough.


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