Tag Archives: Nicola Werenowska


The Paradis Files


Queen Elizabeth Hall


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


Southbank Centre thespyinthestalls

The Paradis Files

Queen Elizabeth Hall until 14th April then UK tour continues


Other shows reviewed by Phillip this year:
Holst: The Music in the Spheres | ★★★★★ | January 2022
Payne: The Stars are Fire | ★★★ | January 2022
Animal Farm | ★★★★ | February 2022
Richard II | ★★★★★ | February 2022
The Woods | ★★★ | March 2022
The Wellspring | ★★★ | March 2022
I Know I Know I Know | ★★★★ | April 2022
The Homecoming | ★★★★★ | April 2022


Click here to see our most recent reviews


Silence – 4 Stars



Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Reviewed – 17th October 2018


“emotionally heavy subject matter often relieved by astutely funny, bittersweet observations on female relationships”


The Silence takes us through the private musings and personal interactions of Ewa, Anna and Maria – three generations of Polish women. It’s hard to pin where the focus of the play sits, running over issues of national identity, the traumas of war and the infuriation of family. That sounds a bit hefty and dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, The Silence is both of these things but also light hearted at times with emotionally heavy subject matter often relieved by astutely funny, bittersweet observations on female relationships.

Kate Spiro gives a just-fraught-enough performance of the externally beige but internally chaotic Ewa, the mother and daughter at the centrepoint of The Silence in many ways. It isn’t an easy part to fulfil sympathetically and could quite easily come across as a standard middle aged meltdown figure. This is avoided with a real sense of tension, a visible tightness that makes one constantly on edge to see if she will begin to unwind or explode in a spectacular snap.

Tina Gray handles ‘babcia’ Maria quite sweetly, setting the audience up to accept the shambling, sweet-old-girl routine well enough to make the turn of the second act all the more hard hitting. Maria Louis completes the cast as Anna and absolutely nails the irritable but dutiful late-teen phase of the youngest generation of the family. All three dip into a not insignificant amount of spoken Polish which comes across quite naturally, a good job from dialect coach Karina Knapinska.

There is something of a stereotypical feel to the characters to begin with – bumbling grandma, middle aged mess and rebellious youth but these roles round out as the play progresses, Nicola Werenowksa has crafted the story of The Silence quite skilfully to take an extraordinary life history and make it relatable to a modern British audience. We go from tales of the Gulag to groans about the M25 seamlessly, seeing parallels in stresses and relationships since the WWII era without falling into the trap of belittling current woes by comparison to harder times.

The Silence is playing in the Studio at the Mercury Theatre, to which it is well suited. Three simple grey chairs make for the majority of the set with only a few other basic props. A high grey screen to the rear of the stage adds a looming bleakness to the atmosphere, cleverly used with a backlight later in the play to fill in time lost to a costume change. This is a play about conversations – conversations with ourselves and with others and the minimalist backdrop avoids any distraction from what is being said. It cannot be described as fast moving, though it flows very well despite the frequently overlapping dialogue of each character. This is helpful to the pace but does make it challenging to keep up with at times, more than once I found myself focusing on one and losing the thread of where the stories of the other two had gone. It is definitely a captivating play and although it is enjoyable at times one doesn’t exactly leave the theatre with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Touches of humour keep it from being completely depressing, however.

As a final note, it is refreshing to see an all female cast and creatives team telling an important story in a time when immigration, refugees and conflict commemorations are such hot topics of debate, so congratulations to director Jo Newman on the production as a whole.


Reviewed by Jenna Barton

Photography by Robert Day


Mercury Theatre


Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 20th October


Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Turn of the Screw | ★★★ | March 2018
Pieces of String | ★★★★ | April 2018
Europe After the Rain | ★★★★ | May 2018


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