Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Mahogany Opera Group: The Rattler

Mahogany Opera Group - The Rattler
Stephen Deazley & Martin Riley The Rattler; Matthew Sharp, Mahogany Opera Group, dir: Frederic Wake Walker; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on March 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Part musical, part interactive play, part puppet show, a whimsically gothic show for children

Starting off their 2016 tour, the Mahogany Opera Group performed 'The Rattler' at the Royal Festival Hall in London's Southbank Centre as part of the Southbank Centre's Chorus Festival. An 'opera' for children, this event made the most of the space available with pre-performance crafts - costume and percussion instrument(rattles and whisks) making - in the big open space behind the bar (Clore Ballroom). This segued into group song learning, led by members of the cast, so that the children (and adults) could join in as everyone paraded into the stalls of the main hall. The songs also appeared during the performance, allowing the audience to be part of the action as townspeople, and to have another opportunity to sing.

Mahogany Opera Group - The Rattler workshop - photo James Berry
Mahogany Opera Group - The Rattler workshop
photo James Berry
The Mahogany Opera Group has existed in its present form since 2014, however it has roots going back to 2003 with Mahogany Opera, and to 1997 with The Opera Group, whose productions such as Kurt Weill’s 'Street Scene' in 2008 have won awards.

Directed by Frederick Wake-Walker 'The Rattler' is a retelling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. Martin Riley, who provided the libretto, has a solid background in writing for children, having worked on classics such as 'Grange Hill' and 'The Worst Witch', and for stage and opera including 'The Face In The Mirror' and 'Killing Cousins - a Tudor Time Travel adventure', for the Welsh National Opera.

Stephen Deazley, who composed the music, has also had his work performed by the WNO with 'The sleeper' and 'Little book of monsters'. He an exponent of youth music and is the founder and musical director of the Scottish-based music education charity, Love Music. In 'Death's Cabaret - A Love Story'. Both Riley and Deazley have previously collaborated with Matthew Sharp, who in this production played the lead role of Hob of Hobsmoor.
Matthew Sharp, Kirsty Maclean - Mahogany Opera Group - The Rattler workshop - photo James Berry
Matthew Sharp, Kirsty Maclean - Mahogany Opera Group
The Rattler workshop - photo James Berry

Part musical, part interactive play, part puppet show, 'The Rattler' was whimsically gothic - in keeping with a generation whose parents were brought up on 'Harry Potter' and 'Game of Thrones', and for whom 'Snow White' is a long way from Disney. The puppet Rattler was brought to life by the combined effort of the cast - its madness enhanced by the way it menacingly minced about the set. By being able to see the puppeteers (as in 'War Horse') we were able to enjoy its character while, for the more easily scared, being reminded that it was not real.

The orchestra of harp, clarinet and cello were on stage alongside the action. Stephen Deazley's music was a mixture of folk song tradition and contemporary techniques, bringing the story captured by the Grimm brothers in 1812 into line with 21st century sensibilities. Deazley was not afraid to use discordant and disjointed effects to engage feelings of suspense and horror. The music given to the singers also stayed well away from cliché and its success with the audience showed that given half a chance, modern opera is accessible to people of all ages.

Mahogany Opera Group - The Rattler pre-performance song learning
Mahogany Opera Group - The Rattler pre-performance song learning
photo Hilary Glover
The set and costuming were simple but effective. All the things which might happen backstage were laid bare around a central raised arena. This was a thoughtful touch which allowed the audience to see how a play works, but meant that the crew had to be inventive only having opportunity for minimal alterations to clothing and to the set.

This performance reminded me fondly of shows put on by travelling players in my school or the local theatre. The puppetry was beautifully done, in a delightfully creepy kind of way, and thanks to the Deazley/ Riley combination the songs were very sticky... I was humming them for days.

Unfortunately the venue did not do them any favours. Perhaps because it was advertised as a fairy story, much of the audience was very young and under the 7+ 'The Rattler' is aimed at. In the huge main hall the audience barely filled the central section of the bottom part of the stalls. Due to the Chorus Festival the Southbank was full of choirs and their supporters, but obviously not full of children. Consequently, despite amplification, the singers voices, and the sound from the instruments, sometimes got lost somewhere in that great cavern, leaving at least one small voice asking "What did he say?" In a different venue this would be a perfect afternoon treat.

'The Rattler' has started its tour of the UK and will be at Blackheath Halls on 14 May and the Bury St Edmunds Festival on 29 May. They will be adding more dates to their site soon.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

The Rattler
Music: Stephen Deazley
Words: Martin Riley
Director: Frederic Wake-Walker
Associate Director: Laura Caldow
Puppetry Assistant: Bart Suavek
Design: Kitty Callister
Puppet Design: Nick Ash
Lighting Design: Daniel Large

Matthew Sharp - Hob of Hobsmoor
Jessica Walker - Dowager Queen Kathryn
Rodney Earl Clarke - Joseph
Kirsty McLean - Alyson
Guy Withers - Crown Prince Aiden

Susi Evans (clarinet)
Clare O'Connell (cello)
Alex Rider (harp)

Elsewhere on this blog:

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