The Paradis Files
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed – 13th April 2022
“a memorable piece”
Graeae Theatre Company presents a new chamber opera by Errollyn Wallen, libretto by Nicola Werenowska and Selina Mills, directed by Jenny Sealey, and conducted by Andrea Brown. The performance is a celebration of inclusivity with a mixed ensemble of disabled and non-disabled performers.
There are two sets of period furniture on either side of the stage (Designer Bernadette Roberts). A striking white harpsichord at centre stage turns out to be a model with a dummy keyboard. Illuminated cabinets provide an entrance to the action on one side and a costume rail on the other. A third illuminated cabinet suspended above the band is revealed as the surtitle screen. These surtitles, welcome despite the opera being sung in English, are displayed in stylish fonts on a parchment background.
The main characters are Hilde, the Baroness von Paradis (Maureen Brathwaite, soprano), and her daughter, the blind pianist and composer Maria Theresia (Bethan Langford, mezzo-soprano). The starting point of the opera may have been to bring out from obscurity Theresia’s successful life story against the odds. But the soul at its centre is the relationship between a mother and her daughter.
Composer Errollyn Wallen endeavours to evoke the sounds of both ‘posh’ and ‘street’ Vienna so the onstage band (musicians of the BBC Concert Orchestra) includes accordion alongside piano, violin, double bass, and drums/percussion. Wallen’s style for the piece is difficult to place; there are elements of the classical period (as befits the era of Salieri and Mozart) but also contemporary spikiness and other elements of jazz, swing and rock. A motif made up of piano scales and exercises represents the necessary practice at the keyboard for Theresia to make it as a musician.
An enterprising technique involving a quartet of Gossips (Ella Taylor, Andee-Louise Hypolite, Ben Thapa, & Omar Ebrahim) spells out what is happening in the plot – a form of musical audio description – and moves the action forward. Much of their onstage antics which includes playing air guitar in one scene and some comedic dancing in another is regrettably obscured from view behind the furniture.
Two stand out scenes are the visits of doctors to cure Theresia from her blindness – “binding, pinning, cutting, lighting” – the onstage action does not need to be graphic for us to understand the torture that goes on here. And the moment of enlightenment that follows as Theresia understands she can find a future for herself despite everything, “I know I am limitless”.
The importance of inclusivity within the production is highlighted with the integral roles of the two Performance Interpreters (Chandrika Gopalakrishnan and Max Marchewicz). Not only do they BSL sign the words throughout the performance but they take an active part in the action too. Ms Brathwaite may sing about slapping her daughter, but it is Chandrika who is doing the slapping. The whole company signs together as they sing ‘The Blind Enchantress’ – a nickname given to Paradis during the English leg of her European tour.
The opera is well played and sung throughout. Bethan Langford and Maureen Brathwaite are particularly excellent and provide the most moving moments of the performance. The ensemble combines well together despite some clumsy moments. Whether the libretto tells the story it intended to, I am unsure, but as a showcase of what is possible to achieve despite disability, Graeae Theatre have created a memorable piece of work.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Patrick Baldwin
The Paradis Files
Queen Elizabeth Hall until 14th April then UK tour continues
Other shows reviewed by Phillip this year:
Reasons to be Cheerful
The pioneering disabled-led theatre company Graeae has confirmed tour dates and venues for the return of their acclaimed musical Reasons to be Cheerful, which will hit the road this autumn. Following a hugely successful tour in 2012 which was seen by almost 12,000 people and a series of concert performances last year, this joyful and defiant production will visit seven regions around the country, kicking off at the Belgrade, Coventry on 4 September and rounding off the tour with a two week run at Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London.
First seen in 2010, Reasons to be Cheerful has gone onto play at theatres and festivals across the UK, in stadiums around the world, and even in front of HM The Queen. “Spasticus Autisticus”, the Ian Dury-penned disability rights anthem which features in the show, was performed by the cast at the London 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony and, despite being banned by the BBC in 1981, broadcast worldwide in front of an audience of over 1 billion.
This coming of age tale rejoices in the infectious and enduring music of Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Featuring stone-cold classic songs including Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick; Plaistow Patricia; Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll; Sweet Gene Vincent; What A Waste and the titular Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3), this show is loud, bold and jubilant.
The parallels with the show’s 1979 setting are clear. Today, as nationwide cuts continue to impact on the lives of d/Deaf and disabled people, Graeae Theatre Company puts them centre stage. As a prominent disabled activist, Ian Dury was a patron and staunch supporter of Graeae. The extraordinary wit and wisdom of Ian Dury and the Blockheads music and lyrics are brought to life by an inclusive cast of 15 actors and musicians.
It is 1979. Labour has just lost the General Election to the Tories. Strikes rock the nation and Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3) is climbing the charts. Die-hard fans Vinnie and Colin are on a mission to see Ian Dury and the Blockheads play Hammersmith Odeon. With no tickets to a sold-out gig their journey throws more at them than they could have ever expected….
Using Graeae’s signature theatrical language, all performances of Reasons to be Cheerful seamlessly include British Sign Language, audio description and creative captioning.
Jenny Sealey, Director of Reasons to be Cheerful and Artistic Director at Graeae Theatre Company, said;
‘I am beyond thrilled that our Reasons to be Cheerful gang are dusting off their Dr. Martens and going back out on the road one final time in a new production of our hit show, thanks to support from Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund. We will be well and truly raising the roof up and down the country with the brilliantly anarchic music of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, whose punk sentiment speaks louder than ever as we fight against the brutal cuts that Deaf and disabled people, and millions of others, have faced in recent years.’
Jemima Dury, daughter of Ian Dury, said;
‘I’m so excited for everyone who will see Reasons to Be Cheerful on this 2017 tour You are in for a treat! It’s energizing, it’s moving and it’s enormous fun. It comes as close as you can get to a 1979 Ian Dury and the Blockheads gig. Graeae gives us diverse, accessible theatre at its best. This is how all theatre should be!’
Chaz Jankel, original Blockhead and co-writer of many songs in the show, said;
‘It is amazing to think that 37 years after Ian and I wrote Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3), the song still has such an impact and sounds so fresh. The Blockheads still perform it at every gig and the vibe in the audience and on stage definitely goes up a couple of notches as we lock in our reasons to be cheerful groove! The Graeae production has added a whole new lease of life to the song and legacy of Ian Dury. The extraordinary energy and skill that the cast bring to this original musical production is edgy yet heartwarming and mesmerising. The respect they have for Ian’s lyrics and lust for life is undeniable. If Ian were alive I am sure he would be laughing his head off and applauding the bravura of this very talented ensemble.’
An extensive community engagement programme will take place alongside this production, inviting original protest songs for a generation to be included in the show’s tour. For further information, email email@example.com
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK BALDWIN IS FROM THE 2012 TOUR OF THE SHOW
Reasons to be Cheerful was first performed in autumn 2010 with original co-producers New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and Theatre Royal Stratford East.
This tour is supported by Arts Council England through their Strategic Touring Fund.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
Friday 8 & Saturday 9 September
Belgrade Theatre Coventry
024 7655 3055
On Sale Now
Tuesday 12 – Saturday 16 September
01332 59 39 39
On Sale Now
Tuesday 26 – Saturday 30 September
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
023 8067 1771
On Sale Soon
Tuesday 3 – Saturday 7 October
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Pre-Sale 29th March
On Sale 15th April
Tuesday 10 – Saturday 14 October
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
0113 213 7700
On Sale Soon
Tuesday 17 – Saturday 21 October
0151 709 4776
On Sale Soon
Tuesday 24 October – Saturday 4 November
Theatre Royal Stratford East
020 8534 0310
On Sale Now