sat 20/09/2014

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

The muse is not enough: Alison Balsom homaged in Samuel Adamson's Purcell musicalAll images by John Haynes

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?

Alison Balsom in GabrielThe 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?

James Garnon and company in GabrielIf 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.

Filthy language, cunnilingus and a beyond-bad farting scene don't disguise what is essentially a home-counties take on Merrie England

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2

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I've just returned from the

I've just returned from the Globe and happily declare that i enjoyed Gabriel enormously. The essential difficulty about the criticisms voiced here is that they rule out any endeavour of this sort at all. What has been concocted are a series of tableaux around the themes of Purcell and the trumpet. The aim has been to paint the atmosphere of 1690s London in a way which is approachable and which provides a platform for the excellent music. Of course there will be those who regard it as shallow, low brow and crude. I thought it was entertaining, well written and engaging. And Ms Buckley's singing was first class.

Sadly, I decided to book

Sadly, I decided to book having read this review and a number of other which were much more generous. I wish I had just trusted David Nice's review above. It's 100% right - this is a nice idea to create a show around a Purcellian theme which has gone horribly wrong in its execution.

It was a beautiful summer day

It was a beautiful summer day in London and the prospect of spending it in the company of Purcell at the Globe was delightful - that was, until the truly mundane Gabriel started. I had the same feeling watching it as I did when watching the latest Almodovar, I Am So Excited: I am not at all excited and when will this misery end? I am afraid that for Gabriel David Nice captured the full horror of the experience and in fact was rather kinder than I am going to be. Alison Balsom and the other musicians were wonderful - peerless even - but I would have preferred a concert to never-ending drivel from the actors on stage. Gabriel was without doubt one of the most ham fisted tedious plays ever written with a depressing reliance on using a very 21st century epithet or grimly predictable sex scenes to spice up a flagging narrative. It was such a hideous descent into cliches about post restoration London and all the best lines were lifted from Shakespeare in Love....the oft quoted 'I had that Henry Purcell in my boat' is merely a re-working of Stoppard's 'I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat.' And believe me, gentle reader, the rest of the play bore no resemblance whatsoever to Tom Stoppard. Plodding, dull and endless. Why oh why did we have to endure a drunk scene, a dead baby scene, a thwarted sapphic scene, a c********* scene (will that satisfy your 'profanity filter'?), a Dutch prostitute scene, and all adding up to a big fat zero? Was it supposed to be an amusing potpourri of late 17th century life in London Town? It had all the pith and interest of a Hello magazine from last month. You have no idea who these people are and really don't care about them. A loose, baggy collection of performances by not very good actors directed by someone who clearly had lost interest in the whole endeavour. Why did our heroes the trumpet family have a father from Essex, a son from Newcastle who was always showing off his most unattractive sagging buttocks and another son from Taunton who promised not to talk too much and never kept his word. The soprano was flat and the tenor inaudible. It was like a village pageant performed by Benny Hill and his cast of grotesques. But unlike Benny it did not even raise the merest chuckle from me and quite a few of the people around me. No charm, no humour and please God never again.

Fortunately, I had already

Fortunately, I had already bought my tickets BEFORE I read this article. Now that I have actually seen Gabriel (with managed expectations thanks to David Nice) I can honestly say this reviewer has no idea what they are talking about. Last night the audience was astounded, moved, delighted and educated, all at once. The so called 'ramshackle' structure of the play is actually a fast paced montage of intriguing short stories based on historical documents from the period, tied together with reoccurring characters and music and a thousand one gags, some poor, some great. Last night was a triumph and I was so angry that this fool has dumbed it down that I came back online this morning to warn anyone else reading this article that the reviewer simply 'did not get it'. In the words of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar "...he loves no plays, As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music; Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit That could be moved to smile at any thing. Such men as he be never at heart's ease Whiles they behold a greater than themselves, And therefore are they very dangerous." Let THOSE words stand as an epitaph for this reviewer's career. The very fact that the reviewer cannot find a single thing in the entire play which they approve of, demonstrates how bias the entire article is. A truly objective analysis would have found plenty of things to like, as indeed the many four and five star ratings from all the other reviewers proves. I've got no problem putting The Globe down. The Tempest was pretty dull this year, even though Midsummer Night's Dream was excellent. But Gabriel? Let's just say I went to sleep with trumpets ringing merrily in my ears and a joy in my heart that I haven't felt since watching musicals as a kid. Magical.

How perceptive of you, Puck:

How perceptive of you, Puck: I played Cassius at school, though never Feste nor the Fool in Lear (nor, pace Anon, Malvolio). But hang on: ALL critics? Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard, two stars? Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine? And it's a pity you can't see through the mists of your rage to note that I did very much like all the instrumentalists (though not the singers).

Okay, sorry for getting a bit

Okay, sorry for getting a bit carried away. I'm sure there are many other reviews of yours I would agree with (might check some out now...) And thanks for publishing my opinion, it's good of you to let readers get the other side of the story.

Decent of you. Can I at least

Decent of you. Can I at least partly reassure you that I go on average to three shows a year at the Globe, which I love - many more in the Globe to Globe season last year - and I've only failed to enjoy two before this one, the all-women Much Ado and the unfathomable three-man Tempest (Rylance's only blip). As the review also spells out, I adore James Garnon as I wrote above (now there should have been another plus) and took much pleasure in another new play in which he stole the show, Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn. Remember The Golden Ass years back? That was my ideal of a picaresque new play, proof that the concept can work. But I know this one has split people right down the middle.

What a load of puritanical

What a load of puritanical rubbish! This is a marvellous show which the audience loved and the other critics too.

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