Thursday, 20 February 2014

Charming revival - Britten's Paul Bunyan

ETO's Paul Bunyan - © Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com
© Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com
Britten - Paul Bunyan: English Touring Opera, Philip Sunderland: Linbury Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 19 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Liam Steel's production of Britten's first opera delights and charms

Britten's Paul Bunyan has had a surprising amount of currency during the centenary year, though the previous two productions were centred on young singers (WNO Youth Opera and British Youth Opera). English Touring Opera's new production was a welcome chance to hear maturer voices, in Liam Steel's engaging production, designed by Anna Fleischle. Britten and Auden's operetta was originally written for student performance and so has a large cast, which forms quite a challenge for a touring company like ETO. But one to which they rose magnificently. Many of the singers are appearing in more than one opera, so you can hear Wyn Pencarreg both as Britten's Hel Helson and Mozart's Papageno, whilst Ashley Catling doubles as Hot Biscuit Slim and Tamino, Adrian Dwyer is singing the role of Johnny Inkslinger for the second half of the run along with Hermes in King Priam and Piotr Lempa who plays Ben Benny, is also Patroclus in King Priam and i sharing the roles of Sarastro and the Speaker in The Magic Flute.

Last night (19 February) at the Linbury Studio Theatre, I heard Mark Wilde as Johnny Inkslinger and the Lead Balladeer, with Wyn Pencarreg as Hel Helson, Caryl Hughes as Tiny, Ashley Catling as Hot Biscuit Slim, Stuart Haycock as Sam Sharkey and Andy Anderson, Piotr Lempa as Ben Benny, Abigail Kelly as Fido, Amy J Payne as Moppet, Emma Watkinson as Poppet, Matt R J Ward as Western Union Boy, Adam Tunnicliffe as John Shears, Matthew Sprange as Cross Crosshaulson, and Maciek O'Shea as Jen Jenson, with Johnn Herford, Simon Gfeller, Henry Manning, Hannah Sawle, Lorna Bridge, Anabel Mountford, Helen Johnson, Susan Moore and Emily-Jane Thomas. Philip Sunderland conducted.


Fleischle's set consisted of a barn, in which a group of American pioneers gather to act out stories. Rather impressively, Mark Wilde performed the Balladeer's songs accompanying himself on guitar, joined by Maciek O'Shea also on guitar and the occasional contribution on washboard, which lent the procedungs an immediacy, as well as highlighting the theme of story telling.

The role of Paul Bunyan is an off stage one. Here the actor Damian Lewis had pre recorded the role, whilst a hat and a step ladder did duty in the pioneers' tales. Lewis spoke Auden's poetic text beautifully and affectingly, rendering it as the poetry that it is.

I have to confess that I have often found Paul Bunyan a little too clever, with a sense that Britten and Auden were a bit too pleased at their own cleverness. Steele's production diffused this with its infectious sense of story telling and, with the cast doubling roles and creating props out of nothing, a certain charming homespun quality. I am aware that what we saw is the result of art and artifice, but it worked. This was a product that engaged and charmed.

It was a very physical production, with some of the chorus numbers almost as production numbers which worked very well. There was not choreographer credited so I presume Steel arranged the movement himself. Matt R J Ward as the Western Union Boy had two brilliant dance moments, showing of his skills.

Mark Wilde as Johnny Inkslinger in ETO's Paul Bunyan - © Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com
Mark Wilde as Johnny Inkslinger
 © Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com
Mark Wilde made Johnny Inkslinger the emotional heart of the show, with his finely controlled delivery of Inkslinger's songs which brought out the emotional depth to them. Ashley Catling and Carly Hughes made a delightful couple as Hot Biscuit Slim and Tiny, with their love making atop a bunk-bed oblivious to the fact that Hel Helson is fighting Paul Bunyan all around them. Pencarreg's Hel Helson was more tongue tied and a less outward character than I have previously seen, and he impressed in his dream sequence. The four blues singers, Adam Tunniclife, Johnny Herford, Henry Manning and Helen Johnson brought a nice sleazy feel to their number. The two cats, Moppet and Poppet (Amy J Payne and Emma Watkinson) were clearly the camp tarts, and delightful they made them too, whilst Abigail Kelly brought a surprising amount of emotional depth to the much put upon Fido.


Whilst individual performances shone, what impressed most was the way Steel had created a real, strong ensemble. All the cast had to perform multiple roles, and everyone was expected to be highly physical. The nature of the production also meant that a singer like Helen Johnson, who was technically down to do the roles of a Blues Singer and the Squirrel in Hel Helson's dream, in fact had a central role to play in the on-going story-telling drama. The detail and inventiveness which went into Steel's production (with some delightful props from Anna Fleischle) made the whole event truly involving.  And if the cast weren't having fun, then they certainly managed to convince us that they were.

ETO's Paul Bunyan -  © Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com
  © Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com
The ending, with its litany of all the things America is and is not, was given added resonance in the way that the gifts from Paul Bunyan all referenced problems of our own time (a gun, an orange uniform from Guantanamo bay). The story telling from the ensemble was so involving that the rather down-beat ending had a real depth to it.

As with King Priam the orchestra was placed behind stage to provide a more sympathetic balance in the Linbury Studio Theatre. Unlike King Priam the rather open wooden set did not appear to impede the sound and the orchestra under Philip Sunderland came over very well.

This is a delightful revival of one of Britten's lesser known operas and I would urge everyone to catch the production whilst it is on tour. ETO are playing their current season until 31 May, see their website for details.
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1 comment:

  1. I have read a number of reviews of Operas premiered (or near premiered) at the Linbury (usually by touring companies such as ETO or WTO) and comment is often made about the placement of the orchestra behind the stage. Sometimes (though not on this occasion) this placement is heavily criticised. I think it is worthwhile making the point not perhaps appreciated by London based reviewers, that this arrangement seems to be necessary at the Linbury but is not required even in the relatively small venues the touring production will be played at around the country. The Linbury placement should therefore be assessed for what it is - a possibly negative compromise which will NOT be repeated elsewhere. I presume that, on these occasions, the set will have been designed primarily for the range of touring venues rather than for the Linbury, so it is important not to criticise a performance on a criterion which is not its "norm". I appreciate that critics can only report on what they see/hear but at least a nod towards recognising that, by going to see the opera at the Linbury, they are not seeing it as it is really meant to be would be welcome!

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