La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, in a new translation by Robin Norton-Hale

OperaUpClose

Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn

(2010)

Review by Philip Fisher

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Could this be the future of opera? Aficionados might be horrified but OperaUpClose certainly know how to entertain with their modernised take on the form.

The Cock Tavern Theatre is certainly not the Met or Covent Garden. A packed audience still numbers less than 50 and the company lives up to its title, with a stage space no more than five paces in any direction and audience members in danger of getting a flying singer in the lap.

Robin Norton-Hale, who also directs, has provided a brash new translation of the libretto, that would better be termed an adaptation, since Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who wrote the original for Puccini, did not set it in 21st-century Kilburn. However, as a location for impecunious Bohemians, the environs of the theatre seem eminently appropriate.

The basic storyline remains the same but gone are the orchestra (replaced by pianist/musical director Andrew Charity), the costumes (T-shirts and jeans), the chorus (except for five minutes in the pub downstairs) and the lavish settings (although designers Kate Guinness and Lucy Read get the contemporary student bedsit for this production absolutely right).

In addition, the performers rotate from a large pool but, judging by the performance reviewed, all are likely to be of the highest quality. Indeed, one of the joys in later years of having attended this pub theatre production could be the opportunity to sit down in one of the world's great opera houses, point at the leading performers and utter the immortal line, "I saw him/her singing above a pub in Kilburn".

What we have left are a bevy of talented young performers together with a good mix of comedy and tear-jerking tragedy, all observed at in-your-face range to remarkable effect. Being so close, they also have to have acting talent and, from top to bottom, this cast have real ability, again bucking operatic tradition.

Lumbering tenors and elephantine sopranos are also a thing of the past. Indeed, I defy anybody not to fall in love, depending on gender preference, with either Pamela Hay playing Mimi or Toby Scholz (Rodolfo). Failing that, for those who prefer the slightly less wholesome look, Michael Davis as Marcello and Lynn Marie Boudreau taking the part of Musetta will be sure-fire winners.

However, there is far more to this fine couple of hours than sex appeal. Both Miss Hay and Scholz are superb singers, followed not too far behind by the other named pairing, as well as Georgios Papaefstratiou and Matthew Duncan playing the student friends of Rodolfo and Marcello.

Even when transferred to Kilburn, the story is truly heartbreaking, as we witness the charming love developing between Rodolfo and the terminally ill Mimi. This is counterpointed by the affair between the more muscular Marcello and feisty, sluttish Musetta. All builds to that unforgettable denouement.

There are many more reasons to love this modern-day La Bohème. Robin Norton-Hale has a great sense of humour with which he brightens up the libretto. In order to keep the audience on their toes, he also plays out the second act in the pub, with tipsy locals suddenly bursting into song in support of the main performers and in particular Musetta, who has the kind of late-night contretemps with a rich lover, Martin Lamb's Alcindoro, that might be all too familiar to habitués of the Cock's public bar.

It will be almost impossible to get tickets for the remainder of this run, which ends on the 15th of May but try hard, as even though La Bohème is immediately afterwards transferring to Soho Theatre where it could run forever, this production will never seem quite the same after it leaves its original home.

Sacha Voit reviewed this production when it opened in 2009