Northcott Review Round Up: A summary of the most recent performances reviewed by our writers this term.

English Touring Opera

Xerxes – Reviewed by Mark Izatt

James Conway’s production of Xerxes sets Handel’s convoluted story of love, conflict and gender-bending in the context of World War II Britain. This change suits the Opera well, bringing out the themes of love and war, and their similarities. As conflicts emerged between characters and the story became more complex, references to warfare grew increasingly apparent, finally culminating in a destructive air raid to compliment the climax of the story. The special effects for this scene were well executed, however recordings of sirens and explosions unnecessarily obscured Handel’s sublime music, which was otherwise brought to life excellently by conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny and all the production’s singers.

Conway’s direction brought out the humour of Xerxes with mastery, regularly raising laughs. In his hands, Atalanta becomes a vivacious wartime sweetheart, and Elviro becomes a black market salesman dealing in stockings. For the first act a mechanical wind sock stood at the side of the stage, rising in increments with the story’s growing tension. I think that the two plasma screens either side of the stage, announcing the beginning of each act with somewhat amateur looking PowerPoint slides, may have been a gimmick too far, often distracting from the on-stage action and preventing one from becoming truly involved with the characters’ situations. But ultimately, English Touring Opera’s Xerxes is a success, its uplifting ending providing a heart-warming and nostalgic remedy to the incoming winter.

Flavio & The Fairy Queen – Reviewed by Emily Pickthall

With a single wall, an open door and debris of stockings and dress jackets bathed in spectral blue light, the set of Flavio laid bare before the creep of Handel’s overture on the opening night of English Touring Opera’s three day stint at the Northcott Theatre. I was excited, to say the least.

But right from the off, the production was lively and the narrative of the opera clear, so often weighted under period dress and the music itself. Flavio falls somewhere between a rather Shakespearean entanglement of human relationships and a comedy of manners. Crumpet loves courtier, courtier loves crumpet. Crumpet meets king, king falls for crumpet. The opera meshes playful plotlines such as these with serious crises of honour between fathers and their sons and daughters, between lovers. Nevertheless it concludes, despite murder and tragedy, in the traditional chorus of reconciliation that at least packs its audience off with an impression of “equanimity and good will”.

Despite The Fairy Queene being tethered by the adaptation of a nineteenth century sanatorium, psychological drama was not the mainstay of Purcell’s work, a set of masques drawing on the fairy kingdom of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The second night’s production came framed by the delusions of the Victorian Bedlam artist Richard Dadd (famous for his troubled and intricate painting The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke and apparent paranoid schizophrenia). Here Purcell’s work translates an otherwise malevolent landscape into one of fancy and frivolity.

By the second act, however, audience members seemed more willing to participate. Dadd himself, in a playful act of hubris, elects himself Oberon, the Fairy King, although the lewd lovemaking (the duet of ‘Corydon and Mopsa’) and private grief (‘O, let me weep’) revealed in other scenes in the opera suggest that his perception is in fact rather acute. The audience are humoured by keyhole glances into life, as opposed to the director’s opinion (James Conway) on Handel’s presentation of characters as “entirely serious about being who they are, and getting what they want or need” in the tragi-comic Flavio.  Having being drawn into Dadd’s vision throughout the course of the two acts, it is touching rather than painful for this suspension of reality, animated by Purcell’s score, to suddenly collapse. After a vigorous finale, its jigs and floral decorations of a spring rite have been swept aside for Dadd to stumble across the stage in a white hospital gown, he glances again towards the moon and has only to applaud for the fairy kingdom to begin a bright encore and the songs to start up once more as the cast took their bows.

Perhaps what stole the show, however, were the trapeze artist duo (aerialists Lisa Whitmore and James Frith, whose life stories are a source of wonder in themselves) and two wooden puppets dressed up as Titania and Oberon. Together they opened and closed the opera in the moon, no less.

English Touring Opera return to the Northcott Theatre in Spring 2012, 20th-24th March with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Thchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Friend or Foe – Reviewed by Jenny Keable

‘Friend or Foe’ is Scamp Theatre’s adaptation of Michael Murpugo’s 1977 novel. The relatively newly founded Scamp Theatre Company are renowned for adapting some of Britain’s most popular children’s literature, specifically aiming to present theatre to audiences of all ages. ‘Friend or Foe’ , a war-time tale of two young boys who are evacuated from London to Devon in the 1940s, where they make a startling discovery that forces them to challenge their views concerning the war, undoubtedly achieves this aim. The way in which the entire story is narrated by the two young boys themselves, enables children to follow and appreciate the story, as well as the morals that can be taken from it. Nevertheless, the play is in no way restricted to a younger audience, for the emotional moments as well as the witty one-liners would prove gripping, moving and entertaining to audience members of all ages.

The play does not merely focus upon the effects of evacuation upon young children, as they are literally forced away from their families and into the unknown. It, rather surprisingly, also focuses upon how the war itself affects the young boys, the beliefs and prejudices they possess, and most particularly, whether friendship can exist even if it is with a person that society deems your enemy. It was evident that there were clear moral lessons to be learnt.

However, whilst the play did have emotional moments, these were successfully balanced out with humour and characters that provided comic relief – an aspect of the play which I found to work brilliantly, as the humour was refreshing yet did not prevent the play from being an authentic portrayal of the war. Matthew Hamper and Paul Sandys were successful in capturing the energy, innocence and naivety of the two young boys; most particularly Hamper whose brilliant facial expressions throughout resulted in his portrayal of the bold and outspoken Tucky being particularly convincing.

Overall, admittedly the props and the set are far from extravagant, and you will be disappointed if you expect anything more than a simplistic set that rarely varies from scene to scene. However, if you are willing to use your imagination this will not be an issue, as the acting is superb. The play seems to provide something that everybody, of all ages, can relate to. ‘Friend or Foe’ is certainly a production worth seeing, purely because it’s real, it’s extremely funny, and very moving.


Make sure to pick up a programme next term for all the performances the Northcott Theatre has to Offer! Razz will continue to review next term, if you are interested in reviewing please email the editors!

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