W S Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan
The Centenary Company
Blackheath Halls, London SE3
This is the first musical production I've seen in the Great Hall of the Blackheath Halls, and it's an ideal venue: huge hall, big stage, good acoustics. And the Centenary Company belongs here in a special way, for it was formed to commemorate the building's 100th anniversary, in 1995, with a production of HMS Pinafore (an appropriate choice, since this was the work performed at the building's opening in 1895).
The singers were a mixture of professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs, while the small orchestra of fifteen, led by Angela Hunt, was clearly professional, and provided sensitive support to the singers throughout.
The setting of the operetta was cleverly updated to 1940, with women in suits and evening dresses, and some of the men in uniform. There was much attention to detail in costume, hairstyles and accessories (Wardrobe Mistress was Pam Wallis, assisted by Celia Moreton-Prichard), making the period 'flavour' totally convincing.
I was especially taken with Lee Devlin's John Wellington Wells: the tall, slim Mr Devlin played the part in the character of a young, spivvy salesman with a suitcase of samples, and his long arms and legs seemed to be made of rubber as he moved around the stage with exaggeratedly melodramatic gestures. I wasn't surprised to learn that he has worked with the National Youth Theatre (in 1994), and studied Theatre Arts at university. His magic scene with the teapot was entrancing, with red lighting, lots of sparkling fairy dust, and some interesting little explosions as he added the potion to the pot.
Another compelling performer was David Johnson as the Notary. Although he only graduated from Guildhall in 1999, Mr Johnson managed to look like a disgusting old man of at least 70 years, in a dirty grey wig and beard, and with a senile shuffle. His amorous behaviour towards the young Constance (Andrea Hayden), after they have fallen in love as a result of the potion, was hilariously cringe-making, and even she, in spite of her 'love' for him, had to recoil and push him away at times. It was a shame that the Notary was not given more to sing, for Mr Johnson in a brief solo passage sounded like a reincarnation of George Grossmith -- surely something to make much of! He is also a freelance double bass player, and clearly has a great career ahead of him, but whether as an instrumentalist or as a stage performer, who can say? Personally, I hope it will be the latter!
There was some nice acting, too, from Julia Rogers as Mrs Partlet: being a larger-than-life 'Mrs Mop' kind of character gave her an opportunity to fill the stage with large gestures, which seemed to come perfectly naturally to her, and her broad West Country accent fitted well with this. Paul Harris as the vicar, Dr Daly, did well in both his singing and speaking parts, with the added bonus of some versatile pipe-playing in Act II; I just felt he could have relished the humour of his first aria a little more. David Hayter as Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre looked every inch a soldier in his uniform, but his body language was restricted, and he had a tendency to speak rather quietly and throw away too many of his lines -- some loosening-up exercises of the actors' games variety are perhaps needed there. Philip Hayes and Emma Gray did well as the just-married couple Alexis and Aline: their singing voices matched nicely, and there was some convincingly realistic acting from them in the rather uncomfortable bullying scene in Act II, in which Alexis demands that Aline should take the potion too, so that she will love him for ever (it doesn't occur to him that he should take it too!).
As written, Act II begins well, but then the plot proceeds downhill, with an unlikely love potion match between Dr Daly and Aline (the vicar with a married woman!) which is immediately overturned when Dr Daly decides that the honourable thing will be to go overseas as a missionary instead, though that drastic solution turns out not to be necessary after all. For, of course, if the effects of the love potion are to be reversed and everything put back to normal again, it's clear that Mr Wells should volunteer to die, and descend to hell with a wicked spirit (no doubt a parody of Don Giovanni). Thus, for me at least, the performance ended in a slightly unsatisfactory way, but that was not the fault of the production: it seems that even G&S had their off-days!
The Centenary Company was originally formed for a one-off performance in 1995, but is still in existence eight years later, thanks to the dedication and hard work of its members, and the enthusiasm and loyalty of its audiences. The Blackheath Halls were not long ago on the brink of closure through lack of funding, but were saved at the eleventh hour, thanks to the incorporation of nearby Trinity College of Music. The association between the Halls and the Centenary Company is clearly a winning combination: long may it continue!
Reviewer: Gill Stoker