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And his cat

Bloomsbury Theatre
03/21/2005 -  and 23, 25, 26 March 2005
Jacques Offenbach: Whittington
Bruce Graham (Alderman Fitzwarren), William Petter (MacPibroch), Samantha Hay (Alice Fitzwarren), Josie Eccles (Dorothy), Alexander Kroll (Bellringer), Rory Mulchrone (Sargeant), Barry Flutter (Captain Bobstay), Ruth Peel (Dick Whittington), Lara Martins (Princess Hirvaia), Mark Richardson (King of Bambouli), May Stevens (Thomas the Cat)

Charles Peebles (conductor), Jamie Hayes (director)

UCL Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Easter is early this year and collides with the end of the academic term, so, among the seasonal Parsifals and Bach Passions, University College, London, Opera presented a pantomine. Offenbach published Dick Whittington and his Cat as an opéra bouffe, but it quacks like a panto: Whittington is a woman in drag, some jokes are satirical about contemporary politics, there is smut (Offenbach anticipated Cole Porter in reveling in the rudeness of the repeated syllable "Dick") and the middle act involves an excursion to an exotic location that requires a lavish, irrelevant set and lightly clad ladies. Its original run in 1875 was a no-expenses-spared business. Offenbach was paid 75, 000 francs for the score, but the reviewer in the Sporting Times failed to comment on it and noted instead that the libretto (by H.B. Farnie) was "one of the worst I have ever heard enunciated", and that the scenery was pretty impressive.

The team at UCL Opera apparently agreed, as the director Jamie Hayes substantially reworked the libretto for this production, the first staging of the original score since 1875. A previous single concert performance, in the Mansion House in 2000, dispensed with the text entirely and had a jokey narrator linking the musical numbers, so this was the first chance to judge the work's theatrical qualities. UCL Opera did a pretty good job, with limited resources, but the Sporting Times critic was probably right: the original libretto is an unspeakable turkey, and the whole thing is about as good as the sum of its parts. Which, it has to be said, are otherwise engaging enough. Whittington is a kind of monogamous latter-day Macheath, a lovable lout, though he does tend to go on about how lovable and loutish he is; there are two songs in praise of the (silent) cat, who also has moments of mayhem; and there is plenty of chorus action, both by the London crowd and by the natives of Bambouli. Jamie Hayes got in a few new jokes of the so-bad-they're good variety, and a good time was clearly had by all, including the audience.

The most entertainment, though, came from two old troupers, D'Oyly Carte veteran Bruce Graham as Alderman Fitzwarren and Mark Richardson as a Mikado-like King of Bambouli. They knew how to add value to the painfully thin material, and also how to beat the rather dodgy amplification to get the words over, in part by making it clear by all kinds of other means what was going on. Samantha Hay as a down-to-earth Alice, not above running a cup-and-ball game when reduced to penury, was attractive, and Lara Martins as Princess Hirvaia was positively naughty, but their roles are based on the premise that a pretty woman with a nice voice is enough to keep the audience amused and they didn't have much to work with. Ruth Peel's fruity mezzo was particularly ill matched to the sound system, and her Whittington's singing was singularly incomprehensible, although she swaggered and swashbuckled in the right style.

There were a sparky set of students in the supporting roles, which include an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman (with an implausible accent), the bellringer of St Mary le Bow on Cheapside, a rather Sweeneyish police sergeant with a team of comic coppers in tow, and an extremely louche sea captain with an amusing camp crew of dancing sailors. Outstanding of the students was Josie Eccles as Dorothy the Cook, mistress of urban repartee and owner of a nifty mezzo or dramatic soprano voice. Kudos also to May Stevens as an implausibly glamorous Tom the Cat, who both killed sock-rats and changed the caption cards between scenes. Though whoever decided that the fairytale helper figure was a cat didn't know from cats.

HE Elsom



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