La Bohème – Up Close and Personal
Following their success with director Paul Higgins’ transposition of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte to a reality TV studio, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, artistic director of the King’s Head, has collaborated with Becca Marriott to create a radical reworking of Puccini’s timeless classic La bohème which he also directed and produced. The action takes place in the contemporary East End of London and is set in a squalid, studenty flat and its local pub with the story being shaped around the four principal characters. This reworking of the narrative creates a story arc that works very effectively in the limited space of The King’s Head; with a lively new libretto that is not afraid to reference Über cabs and selfies, and with the two feckless hipster male leads working on laptops we are very much in the present day.
I was concerned that the modern setting and lyric would jar with the music but the writers have kept the love songs and high drama elements relatively close to the original meaning being more cavalier with the comic material. This approach worked most of the time, however, occasionally the production felt that it was losing touch with their world of Amazon, double vodkas and dodgy Xmas sweaters, tipping back into Grand Opera territory.
I was also uncertain how the fortissimo vocals that characterise a lot of opera singing would work in this intimate space but as the evening moved on relentlessly towards a denouement that was both visceral and brilliantly played, the vocal level was matched by the intensity of the acting and it was a joy to experience the combination at close quarters. Even at a relatively intimate opera house such as Glyndebourne, it is impossible to get really up close to the action.
Stephanie Edwards shone as Mimi bringing a winsome sense of vulnerability to her ” I’m always called Mimi” (“Si mi chiamino Mimi”) aria and playing her descent into a junkie hell with extraordinary power. She combined a clarity of tone with an emotional and vocal intensity that left the audience drained. Caroline Kennedy’s well-sung Musetta was played as cynical, flirtatious and manipulative and not above straddling and teasing a male member… of the audience for comic effect. Thomas Isherwood caught the tension in the character of Mark, the Alpha male in the friendship with Ralph but totally besotted with Musetta who tormented him at every turn. Roberto Abate as Ralph was occasionally a little flat in his pitching though whether he could properly hear the cello and piano accompaniment under the vocals is up for question. But his articulation of his character’s emotional journey and his acceptance of his love for Mimi at the end was sensitively handled.
With pacey direction and a set that effectively conjured up memories of filthy hippy student digs in the 70s, this is a production that should speak to a wider audience than the core opera audience.
Wednesday 31st August – Saturday 8th October 2016
Tuesday – Saturday, 7.00pm/Sunday Matinees, 3.00pm
[excludes 1st, 4th, 6th and 8th September]
Tickets are priced £21.50/Premium seats are available at £25.00 (£35.00 on Friday/Saturday)
Concessions are available at £19.50 and £17.50
0207 226 8561/ kingsheadtheatre.com
King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, London, N1 1QN
The nearest underground stations are Angel (on the Bank branch of the Northern line) and Highbury & Islington (on the Victoria and London Overground lines). The nearest rail station is Kings Cross St Pancras.