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The Light in the Piazza (Royal Festival Hall)

A hybrid of opera and musical theatre, The Light in the Piazza is based on an old Hollywood film and sets a complex love story among the ruins and sites of Florence.

The Royal Festival Hall isn’t known for staging musicals, and it is easy to see why – with no flies, wings or ubiquitous revolve, opportunities for set and staging are limited, and the hall is best utilised for classical concerts or semi-staged operas.

Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza

Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza

Here, the set is dominated by a huge plaster statue of a headless naked man’s bottom, and a cut-down snippet of set with a staircase, doors, archway, and a small space which is utilised for anything from a hotel room, art gallery and church to a tourist square, pavement cafe and briefly, Rome.

The cast is headed by opera superstar Renee Fleming as protective mum Margaret – I felt she didn’t quite fit her character early on but her singing was wonderful and as the character softened and we had an insight into her dead marriage back home (telling and brief scenes from Malcolm Sinclair) we warmed to her.

Renee Fleming

Renee Fleming

Dove Cameron plays Clara, mid-twenties and emotionally underdeveloped due to a childhood trauma (it felt for ages that the problem may have been terminal illness, as Margaret’s explanation to the audience comes late). Cameron is best known for her work for Disney, including the Descendants film series. Her high soprano didn’t quite click for me, but she acted well in a difficult role, depicting a girl finding romantic love for the first time.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

Rob Houchen, a new name to me, is Fabrizio, the Florentine who falls so head over heels for Clara he sings an impassioned aria about her – in Italian! He has a glorious voice, although in his scenes he is saddled with speaking in broken English.

Alex Jennings plays his father, with better English due to his work with American authorities during the war. He’s an urbane shop owner with a wife (Marie McLaughlin) stereotypical Italian until she breaks the fourth wall in act two to tell us what her family are talking about in scenes which verge on comedy), and older son (Liam Tarne) who neglects his flighty wife (the scene-stealing Celinde Schoenmaker).

Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen

Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen

The score, by Adam Guettel, is not that memorable, sadly, but is performed well – including solos for Fleming, Cameron, and Houchen, and duets for Fleming/Cameron, Cameron/Houchen and even Fleming/Jennings. The orchestra of Opera North do well, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, even if they over-dominate that vast stage.

View from front stalls.

View from front stalls.

The Light in the Piazza feels swamped in such a large space, even with the top level closed. I was lucky enough to secure my seat for half the price, but could have paid a lot less. Pricing this as a top-flight West End show when it is effectively a semi-staging feels too ambitious, and show would surely have more emotional impact in a more intimate space.

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.

From my seat in the front stalls I did feel engaged and involved, but in the back row the experience would be very different. Kudos to director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones for bringing a bit of Italian magic to this cavernous stage, although the ensemble were limited to bits of movement and dancing on that staircase.

Production photo credits Dewynter.

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Theatre review: Collaborators

In 1939, the great Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about the country’s dictator, Josef Stalin.  This was in many ways a poisoned chalice: many of Bulgakov’s plays were banned under the Soviet regime (except The Days of the Turbins/The White Guard, a personal favourite of Stalin’s), and as an opponent of all the regime stood for it was his most difficult commission.  The play was completed (called Batum) but never passed for performance; it is considered his weakest work.

This commision is the seed for John Hodge’s new play, ‘Collaborators’, which is currently showing at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe (and then transferring to the Olivier), directed by Nicholas Hytner.  We first meet Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) in the small apartment he shares with his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), young worker Sergei (Pierce Reid, who lives in the kitchen cupboard, bare as the house has no food), former aristocrat Vassily (Patrick Godfrey) and Praskovya (Maggie Service), a teacher of history.  They are poor but defiant.

Into this life we hear of Bulgakov’s uneasy dreams about Stalin, and his declining health – flagged in an amusing interlude with a dotty doctor (Nick Sampson).  Once secret policeman Vladimir (Mark Addy) visits and asks for a play to celebrate the 60th birthday of Stalin, things start to change for the writer – and he starts to change to, following a series of visits where he collaborates with his own subject (Simon Russell Beale), to the point where they start to become each other – Bulgakov mouthing the propaganda of his leader in casual conversation, and Stalin excitedly shaping ‘Young Josef’ for the stage.

‘Collaborators’ might be initially read as a comedy, and Russell Beale plays off Jennings very well – with some sharp scenes of comedy.  But after the interval the play takes a darker turn, becoming a black comedy, and a tragedy too.  The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, although much of it is a two-hander between two masterful actors at the top of their game.

The concept of ‘Collaborators’, especially in its staged scenes from the banned Moliere play, brings to mind Bulgakov’s most well-known work, his novel The Master and Margarita, which is a thinly-veiled critique of the Stalinist regime and all its horrors, where people are tried and shot according to quota, where people go to work and never return home, where further enquiries are catastrophic.  This novel was a sharp satire with a sense of the ridiculous – and this is where Lodge’s play succeeds, in presenting a monster in a black comedy coat, and the collapse and tragedy of a man and a nation with smoke and mirrors.


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