“Highly inventive and witty, it is Gilbert & Sullivan meets Agatha Christie meets Monty Python”
Fifteen months on from the first lockdown, as we approach the possibility of most restrictions being lifted on July 19th, conversations still tend to focus on the havoc and devastation the pandemic has wreaked on society – particularly the arts. But it is still possible to reflect, too, on the positives; and the way that many institutions and individuals have had to adapt. The well-known proverb, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has taken centre stage this past year. One such company is the award-winning Charles Court Opera (who are certainly not short of inventiveness in the first place). Their most recent pantomime, ‘Snow White in the Seven Months of Lockdown, was filmed exclusively for online release in collaboration with the King’s Head Theatre, and have just released a cast recording of ‘Iolanthe’.
Their latest work, “Express G&S”, was conceived during lockdown, starting out as a ‘Reduced Shakespeare’ inspired exploration of all the Gilbert & Sullivan operas. The needs of social distancing restrictions called the shots, leading to a condensed cast, accompanied by one pianist. As with most great ideas, it was probably ill advised. How to perform the complete works of Gilbert & Sullivan in just seventy-five minutes! But thankfully they persevered, and it grew and spiralled to become a kind of ‘murder mystery’. Fairly light on murder or mystery, it is weighed with nuance, comedy, imagination, cleverness, and delightful silliness. It maintains the air of a Victorian parlour entertainment while fitting in perfectly into the twenty-first century.
A motley crew of outlandish characters are portrayed by Matthew Kellett, Catrine Kirkman and Philip Lee, supported by Musical Director David Eaton on piano. Eaton also ingeniously adapted the lyrics of the many of Gilbert and Sullivan pastiches that run through the show. Sometimes tweaking, sometimes replacing completely, Eaton is a master of the craft, and with John Savournin’s book and direction we are taken on a glorious joyride through the G&S repertoire. There are references to all the works. I must hold up my hand and admit to most of them flying over my head, but I did catch a few of the more oblique ones that tried to slip by me.
But even if you are a complete stranger to the Victorian operatic duo, there is more than enough to feast upon. Kellett joins the G&S Express as a passenger before being drawn into the mystery aboard the train. Adopting the mantle of Inspector Pierrot, he has to deal with an assortment of oddballs, played variously by Kirkman and Lee. The solving of the mystery is a mere side-line. What pulls focus are the joyous performances and the virtuosity of tackling the musical numbers. On the surface there is a casualness; an almost throwaway quality to the piece which belies the hard work and clockwork precision that is needed to pull off this sort of show.
Highly inventive and witty, it is Gilbert & Sullivan meets Agatha Christie meets Monty Python. It is the very model of a modern major mash up. Another triumph for Charles Court Opera.
“all will certainly be inspired and enlightened by its end”
In 1955, the English-language version of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot premiered in London. Initially denounced by critics as ‘boring’ and ‘a play where nothing happens’, Beckett’s tragicomedy about Vladimir and Estragon waiting endlessly for a man named Godot (who – spoiler – never arrives) is now considered one of the most significant plays of the twentieth century due to its exploration of the human condition.
However, despite such a universal theme, an ugly sexism hangs over the play’s casting. Beckett strongly objected to the idea of women taking on the roles of the play’s two protagonists, his estate going as far to file lawsuits against theatre companies who attempted to do so. Through a combination of debate, dance numbers, and, as expected, tedious waiting, theatre troupe Silent Faces address this outdated restriction in a thoroughly playful manner in their new show Godot is a Woman.
Jack Wakely, Josie Underwood, and Cara Withers (the two former also co-writing the play alongside Cordelia Stevenson) take to the stage in the scruffy attire and bowler hats associate with Beckett’s two leads. The trio work harmoniously together, bouncing off each other and switching between roles with ease.
The play starts off rather slow with little dialogue, most likely intended to reflect the sedate pace of Beckett’s original work. This is admittedly a bit of a slog especially for those unfamiliar with the source material which the three are parodying.
The play picks up significantly in its second half with choreographed dances, lively debate in a mock court trial, and several dramatic costume changes. A particular highlight is a medley of hits by female artists from Madonna to Dua Lipa while the cast list female firsts and achievements since Beckett’s death in 1989. It is (rightly so) argued here that social and cultural attitudes to women have changed so significantly in the last three decades that it is frankly absurd to uphold the wishes of a dead man who may have indeed changed his opinion had he lived into the twenty-first century.
The mock trial is the strongest section of the performance, eliciting the most laughter from the audience and clearly communicating the ridiculousness of this gender restriction. It begs the question why the entire show did not take on this format as it is here where the cast really find their rhythm, passion, and voice.
The set (Frances Gibon) features the leafless tree backdrop and the rock on which Estragon repeatedly sits of the original play. There are several amusing props including a Waiting for Godot book that hangs by a rope above the stage (acting as the holy book to swear by in the court scenes) and a diagram of prostate used to (poorly) explain why Vladimir, who frequently has to leave the stage to urinate, cannot be played by a woman.
The sound design (Ellie Isherwood) is particularly strong with jolly telephone ‘hold’ music playing almost constantly throughout the performance to evoke a sense of endless waiting. Audio clips from BBC Radio 4 are also utilised well to demonstrate the intense discourse and lasting legacy around the play and its performance.
In Godot is a Woman, the unceasing waiting of Beckett’s play is ultimately replaced with action, movement, and liveliness. It is a symbolic moment when Wakely, Underwood and Withers announce that they will be ‘going, not waiting’ and leave the stage, something Beckett’s characters are unable to do. Those unfamiliar with Beckett’s seminal work may struggle initially with this performance but all will certainly be inspired and enlightened by its end.