La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini, in a new english version by Adam’s Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott

King's Head Theatre

Trafalgar Studios 2

From 06 December 2017 to 06 January 2018

Review by Philip Fisher

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Lovers of opera tend to think about the Met or Covent Garden stages filled with dozens of musicians and choruses that can number close to 100. Trafalgar Studios 2, which is hosting this West End transfer, has a capacity of no more than that.

When Adam Spreadbury-Maher and the King’s Head present an opera, everything is cut back—except the entertainment value.

This modern version of La Bohème is set in Dalston today with cultural references that include Theresa May, Facebook and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, while the most telling putdown that aspiring playwright Ralph rather than Rodolfo can think of for his arty flatmate Mark not Marcello is “he likes Trump”.

Indeed, this might be the first time that a classic opera has been reimagined as a kitchen sink drama with comic overtones.

Where the story begins to get closer to the original is in the romantic trysts that the young men endure rather than enjoy during one and three-quarter tempestuous hours of truly operatic tragedy.

Before the evening starts, baritone Mark sung by Thomas Isherwood is in thrall to Honey Rouhani’s sexy soprano Musetta, a vamp whose sexiness steams up the glasses of a number of audience members, such is their proximity to the action. Indeed, one punter each night will think that his luck is in until his flirtation lands him with an angry actress and a hefty bar bill.

While that couple’s on-off relationship is the stuff of high farce, the love that develops between tenor Roger Paterson as Ralph and co-writer Becca Marriott. Not only does the mezzo excel as Mimi but on this occasion you will have a long wait for any fat lady to sing since, unlike so many who play the part, she is more convincingly proportioned for somebody starving herself to death.

Their first meeting leads to almost instantaneous love but, even then, Ralph has spotted the track marks on Mimi’s right arm, hinting that rather than consumption, a different fate awaits this 21st-century heroine.

Almost anybody reading this review is likely to know how this sad story closes and, by the end of the evening, the plot has followed its inevitable course with a modern twist.

What makes these chamber operas so special is not only the vibrant re-working of an old, old story but high production values combined with the fact that every one of the singers can also act convincingly, not always a requirement in more formal (and expensive) productions.

The orchestra may consist of no more than musical director Panaretos Kyriatzidis on piano accompanied by William Rudge on cello but they work wonders.

Even better are the singers. All four young performers come out of the top drawer and make the most of their opportunities to get up close and personal with the audience. The only danger is of being blown away, when the power of voices that could genuinely reach the back of La Scala is unleashed in a space that is probably smaller than the orchestra pit at the opera house in Milan.

This kind of production is ideal for anybody that loves opera and wishes to see new young stars in the making but, more importantly, it also makes the medium accessible to those who cannot afford the high prices charged half a mile or so down the road and who prefer to see and hear the real thing at close range.