Gabriel, Shakespeare's Globe | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Gabriel, Shakespeare's Globe
Top trumpeter Alison Balsom can't redeem the ramshackle banality of this Purcell musical
If there’s a more thinly written, loosely structured and hammily acted play than Samuel Adamson’s panorama of Purcell’s London, then I have yet to endure it. Baffling, because this is the writer who brought us Southwark Fair, a lively depiction of the local scene which never so much as hinted as the village-institute clichés and banalities piled high here in a production by Dominic Dromgoole which does little to finesse the sorry situation.
Who could have resisted top-league trumpeter Alison Balsom’s proposal to put on a show at the Globe? It must have seemed like a good idea: Purcell: The Musical with heavenly balm from a brass instrument used for its surpassing sweetness and the opportunities for an ensemble piece, musicians and actors in harmony as they explore themes and characters from the Olde England of William and Mary. Chuck in a healthy dash of feminism, keep it modern with a very contemporary bawdiness, draw it to a close with the pathos of Mary’s and Purcell’s deaths: where can you go wrong?
The answer, alas, is in nearly every department except the pretty costumes. You would not expect Balsom (pictured right) to fail us, at least as far as her surprisingly limited role in the overall picture allows. She does indeed sing with the tricky valveless trumpet, an instrument which gave even the equally fine David Blackadder problems when he tried to play Haydn’s concerto on it. She’s flanked by a very fine period-instrument group, including second trumpeter Mark Bennett who keeps her noble company in Purcell’s ravishing Funeral Music for Queen Mary, and she adopts several vocal parts as her own, including that of the second countertenor in “Sound the Trumpet”.
Yet there’s the problem with collaboration: the singers are simply not up to the likes of Iestyn Davies and Lucy Crowe (who is?), with whom Balsom has performed and recorded. The two men are stiff professionals, and why could they not have found a soprano who can act rather than a promising young actress who can just about sing, Jessie Buckley, to step into the limelight for one of Purcell’s most melting numbers, "The Plaint" from The Fairy Queen?
If any of the actors enjoys success with a speech, though, it’s Buckley as court singer Arabella Hunt, who really did "marry" another woman in her youth, had the ceremony annulled six months later and thenceforth abjured tyrannic man. Her tale, though, has to fight for a smidgin of development alongside other, feebler storylines like those of the fantasist waterman who had that Charles II pissing out of his boat and black sheep trumpeter Bill, an almost unbearable and often unintelligible performance by Peter Fox with too much flashing of saggy buttocks.
Filthy language, cunnilingus and a beyond-bad farting scene don't disguise what is essentially a home-counties take on Merrie England and rule the show out for kids (they’ll be spared intolerable boredom). I'm surprised not to see a hint of Will Tuckett's usual creativity in the choreography and the feeble bird "puppetry" along with a handful of special effects is put to shame by the inventiveness of A Season in the Congo down the road at the Young VIc.
Even James Garnon (pictured centre above), who had many of us helpless with laughter as James I in Anne Boleyn, struggles to squeeze a chuckle or a tear out of his material (from me, at any rate: to be fair, many in the audience seemed quite delighted with the play). He does at least get one half-funny scene as a groping spectator at Purcell’s King Arthur. Thus his verdict on that semi-opera: "it may suit the crude palates of ruffians, but there’s more tune in the one derisory ditty my flunkey can play on his fiddle called 'Lumps of Pudding' than there is in an entire afternoon of this inflated chronicle of Purcellian shit". Let those words stand as an epitaph for this whole ill-starred venture.
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