Puccini’s La Boheme is one of the most-performed pieces in the repertoire of opera houses major and minor. You may feel it overexposed or as having a regular date with an old friend, but I can promise you it is unlikely you have seen the music scored to the lyrics “utter bollocks”.
Mark Ravenhill’s production of La Boheme is pared down to ninety minutes and four on-stage characters, with a piano taking the place of an orchestra. This makes it intimate and immediate.
When Rob (Daniel Koek) and Mimi (Philip Lee) meet after matching on Grindr, they ‘meet cute’ to the strains of O soave fanciulla, boasting exquisite vocals from Koek as he realises he is falling for this new casual hook-up, as Lee joins in with nervous half-smiles.
Meanwhile, Rob’s flatmate Marcus (fine baritone Matt Kellett) is pining for his ex, Marissa (Grace Nyandoro) and in act two their relationship reconnects with fireworks as she flirts with audience members who stand in for the taverners. Her playful Quando m’en vo is a highlight as her light soprano fills the room.
This La boheme began before lockdown as a one-hour reinvention by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, and has been further refined by musical director David Eaton and performer Philip Lee.
It is delightfully sweary, very honest, and extremely funny. And if you are a Puccini purist and worry about those melodies getting lost, without a chorus, and rethought for a small space – don’t.
What confuses a little is the set which is dominated by a doctor’s office but which has to pass for inside and outside the flat, as well as inside a bar. There is clever work with lighting (by Jo Underwood), but often confusion about where we are, with a recurring scene feeling out of place.
Mimi’s story has been explored in a modern sense in Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, in which he exists in a world of drug pushers and deadbeats, and this La boheme version of Mimi (“my real name is Lucas”) feels similar, plagued by addiction and bad choices.
What was a great tragedy of starving artists and sickness has become a comic piece which retains its sad coda, but which feels a little unfocused. There are two love stories here, and a core of friendship, but it somehow loses the scope of a wider perspective.
This La boheme is brave and bold, and unapologetically queer. It’s like seeing an old friend try on a new style of clothes to see how they feel. Enjoyable, but perhaps a little ephemeral in its execution.
You can watch La boheme at the King’s Head theatre until 28 May – purchase your tickets here.
Image credit: Joseph Martin-Kelly