The Idea

Composition by Gustav Holst with libretto by Fritz B Hart
Irrational Theatre
Jack Studio Theatre

The Idea (left to right) Valeria Perboni as the Queen, Simon Mulligan as the Sentry, Ross Hobson as the King, and John Stivey as the Prime Minister Credit: Bob Simpson
The Idea (left to right) Elena Hogg as Mona, Valeria Perboni as the Queen, Ross Hobson as the King, John Stivey as the Prime MinisterThe Idea (left to right) Credit: Bob Simpson
The Idea (left to right) Ross Hobson as the King, John Stivey as the Prime, Elena Hogg as Mona and Simon Mulligan as the Sentry Credit: Bob Simpson

Say 'Gustav Holst' and eight of the proverbial ten cats will immediately think of his orchestral suite, The Planets, or even the now-controversial hymn commonly known as "I vow to thee, my country", a pairing of Holst's music with Cecil Spring Rice's poem that the composer came to regret.

Only the nerdiest of Holst fans will probably have heard of the 1898 operetta, The Idea, and we have director Paula Chitty and Irrational Theatre to thank for pulling it out of obscurity and putting it more clearly on the record.

There is something rather fitting about this week's outing for The Idea being hosted at Brockley's Jack Studio Theatre (having premièred at The Gatehouse in July).

The librettist of the piece, Fritz Hart, a contemporary of Holst at The Royal College of Music in London, was born in this very place, and Holst (born in Cheltenham) spent most of his life in London, for many years teaching at James Allen's Girls' School down the road from Brockley in Dulwich.

Unsurprisingly, The Idea puts in mind the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan which so dominated the scene from the last quarter of the 19th century. It borrows their trademark use of comedy to deliver social commentary, in this case the Prime Minister has the idea that things are not going well in the fictional kingdom and the men and women should swap roles. It is the first of a number of bad ideas…

Chaos and disquiet ensue as society is up-ended but a happy ending is assured and comes in the form of the kingdom having a now-model Prime Minister, who promises never to have another idea again.

Contemporary relevance could not be kept at bay even if you wanted it to be and any number of prime ministerial bad ideas come flooding to mind. Appointing Gavin Williamson as Secretary of State for Education, appointing Priti Patel to any post at all and so on, but for me something else jumped to mind and would not be budged. The name in the frame was Cameron and the idea was Brexit. Talk about chaos and disquiet, but no happy ending in sight.

Holst's sprightly tunes (arrangement by Patrick Vincent) carry along the bonkers story with Valeria Perboni as the Queen leading the less assured cast vocally and in the detail of her performance.

Satire is apparent throughout Hart's libretto and Chitty's surreal staging has stylised movements (dance gestures by Elizabeth George) and the characters adopting clownish faces clearly invite our ridicule.

The show suffers somewhat from its age. It is no longer ludicrous to society as it was back in 1898 for a woman to be given a gun or a man to take up knitting so that aspect of the comedy is lost and no amount of buffoonery can get it back.

There are some wryly comic rhymes and there is no shortage of wit to Hart's words, but they create an internalising sort of humour and there are few laugh out loud moments. Feasibly, my self-imposed Brexit scenario is too tragic a backdrop to pierce the surface and I should have thought of some other Prime Ministerial mis-judgement—Thatcher's 1986 privatisation of British Gas perhaps.

If fin de siècle operettas are your thing or you just want to see something outside of the usual offering, this rediscovered snip from the Holst's canon should be on your list, but choose your prime ministerial cock-up with care…

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti