“People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” Now, it’s not often I start a review by using a quote from a rom-com but I actually think this is actually very true. I will always remember my first opera and the way I felt during and afterwards. I also remember the first time I saw La bohème which was also my first visit to the Royal Opera House. However, if you have not seen this particular show, then your luck is in as La bohème is currently being presented at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.
As with most operas – and despite what the purists tell you – the story in La bohème is very simple. It is Christmas night and Ralph (Roberto Abate) and his flatmate Mark (Thomas Isherwood) are sat at home berating the fact that it is so cold and various parts of their bodies are actually freezing. They are both struggling artists of one form or another and are pretty much on their uppers as far as money goes. Eventually, they decide they have had enough of the cold and hunger and Mark heads out to the local pub – the ‘Cat and Mutton’ – for a drink. Ralph promises to join Mark there and support him should Mark’s ex Musetta (Caroline Kennedy) be there. However, before Ralph sets off, there is a knock at the door and on the threshold, he meets Mimi (Stephanie Edwards) who lives upstairs. Well, love blooms very rapidly – thanks to a little bit of underhand trickery – and the two of them go off to meet Mark in the pub and celebrate the start of their lives together.
When Puccini wrote La bohème. It had a cast of ten main characters and an orchestration for a full 40 piece orchestra in the pit and various musicians off-stage as well as a chorus of students, working girls, townsfolk, shopkeepers, street-vendors, soldiers, waiters, children. It was sung in Italian and had three pretty huge sets to cover the four acts. When Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher decided to stage the show, he reduced the cast to four in total, took the orchestra down to a piano and cellist and worked with Becca Marriott to not only translate the libretto (that’s the words for non opera buffs) to English but bring it solidly into the twenty-first century using the vernacular and idiom of today to illustrate the lives of the four characters. On paper, this version of La bohème should not work under any circumstances. But it does work and does in spectacular style.
From Becky-Dee Trevenen’s fabulous set that made fantastic use of every ounce of space in the theatre, through the costumes – including the best Christmas jumper I’ve ever seen to the atmospheric lighting design by Nic Farman, where a starlit night is beautifully recreated, Everything about this production was really tremendous. One very minor gripe was that using so much of the theatre space occasionally meant there was a potential for some audience members to have problems seeing everything as it occurred.
I loved the updated words which in a way brought the opera back to its roots as a theatrical genre meant to entertain the masses. It was fun, rude, crude, hilarious and heart-breaking. All four performers were fantastic in their roles. I understand that there is an alternative cast that plays as well and if they are half as good as the team I saw, then the audience is in for a real treat. I’m not going to single anyone out as being better than anyone else as all four were superb – though a quick mention to Caroline Kennedy who flirts so well I bet she never has to buy a drink herself.
Overall then, I really loved this version of La bohème. If you have never seen opera before then this is a fantastic way to experience it and if you are a bit of an opera aficionado, then you should see how this production turns opera from elitist to popular without losing one iota of the story and the splendour of the original . On every level it should fail but on every level it succeeds superbly. My heartiest congratulations to everyone involved.
Review by Terry Eastham
The King’s Head Theatre presents a radical new version of Puccini’s timeless classic, La bohème by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott.
Renowned for his inventive, contemporary reinterpretations of classic theatre and opera, director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, will focus upon the quintessential quartet – Mimi, Musetta, Rodolfo (Ralph) and Marcello (Mark) – and it will be lifted from when Puccini set his opera in the early 19th century to present day East London.
Composer Giacomo Puccini
Libretto Adam Spreadbury-Maher & Becca Marriott
Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis
Designer Becky-Dee Trevenen
Lighting Designer Nic Farman
Associate Director David Spencer
Stage Manger Christine Collins
Performance Dates Wednesday 31st August – Saturday 8th October 2016
Tuesday – Saturday, 7.00pm
Sunday Matinees, 3.00pm
[excludes 1st, 4th, 6th and 8th September]
Location King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, London, N1 1QN