Georges Bizet
Kings Head Theatre

Christina Gill (Carmen) & Christopher Diffey (Don Jose)

You've got to love an English queue. Everyone patiently waits, crammed into the Kings Head pub just minutes before curtain up, and the house doors still haven’t opened. Quiet mutterings 'I guess it will be a late start then,' ripple through the crowd.

Dead on 7:15, flamenco clapping broke out, and for a moment it seemed as if someone was being distinctly un-British rebelling at the wait. In fact Carmen (Christina Gill) had slipped into the crowd, and we were greeted by the Habanera as she shimmied her way around the pub. This is OperaUpClose and personal, and the relaxed, intimate atmosphere followed us into the pub theatre right through the show.

Unfortunately having to run the bar hadn't done wonders for the rest of the cast's warm up, and the first few numbers were a little shaky. But fears over a downhill spiral were unfounded. The energy from the whole cast was infectious, and before long voices matched acting ability.

Christina Gill was a sassy, sexy modern day Carmen. Come hither, with a hint of softness. Revolutionary when this dangerous heroine part was written, Carmen’s a character that translates fantastically to a modern day audience and with Gill’s sumptuous voice she certainly stole the show. Escamillio (Nicholas Dwyer) added more sex appeal with a topless appearance, and Dwyer played the part with a light-hearted exterior, undercut with the steely determination only found in a true gang leader.

This is an abridged and much altered Carmen, set very much in style of the student digs in OperaUpClose's award winning production of La Bohème. Road signs, a tatty chaise longue and plenty of alcohol bottles litter the set; Escamillo's gang is based somewhere in the depths of North London. Ben Cooper’s updated libretto is fast paced, and the spoken dialogue feels natural and improvised. The two dumb blondes (Olivia Barry and Fleur Bray) and camp Remendado (Adam Crockett) provide particular mirth. Carmen singing karaoke around the flat and Escamillio’s risky plan for a drug mission are some of the nice touches helping bring the opera into the present day.

Non-comparable to our standard high art opera fare; this adaptation cements the emphasis on entertainment. Director Rodula Gaitanou succeeds in this aim, the packed house had atmosphere and the laughs kept coming. Although OperaUpClose’s reduced operas with seedy sets fitting limited surroundings are becoming a little formulaic, in this case the tried and tested approach certainly paid off with Carmen. A score resilient to more a than a little tweaking, this adaptation appeared stronger than many of their other rewritten operas partly because of the extent they had reorganized Bizet’s brilliance. Accompanied only by two guitars (Rosie Hopkins, Sam Johnson) the Spanish essence was kept alive if somewhat pared down.

The main success though was the fantastic energy brought to this zippy, fast paced chamber opera. The audience were experiencing the traditional operatic whirlwind of emotions, but in double time. When the opera finally climaxed with a scrappy struggle between Don Jose (Christopher Diffy) and Carmen, it was a brutal shock to find Carmen suddenly struck repeatedly against the wall. Whether you’re an opera purist or not, this Carmen is worth a visit to see electricity bouncing around the stage, and still hear all your old favourites.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

Are you sure?