Ein Traum, sung by Ailish Tynan

Ailish Tynan is a world-renowned soprano who has played the lead in operas such as La Boheme, Hansel and Gretel, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Magic Flute, appearing in venues such as The Royal Opera House, La Scala and Grange Park.  She also performs extensively at recitals and concerts, and is a regular on the BBC Proms.  Here she performs Ein Traum by Edvard Grieg, from his Sechs Lieder, Opus 48, accompanied on the piano by James Baillieu.  This was recorded while in self-isolation during the current Covid 19 pandemic.  An English translation of the song is printed below the video.  Ailish is represented by Steven Swales Artist Management.

A Dream

English Translation © Richard Stokes

I once dreamed a beautiful dream:
A blonde maiden loved me,
It was in the green woodland glade,
It was in the warm springtime:
The buds bloomed, the forest stream swelled,
From the distant village came the sound of bells—
We were so full of bliss,
So lost in happiness.
And more beautiful yet than the dream,
It happened in reality,
It was in the green woodland glade,
It was in the warm springtime:
The forest stream swelled, the buds bloomed,
From the village came the sound of bells—
I held you fast, I held you long,
And now shall never let you go!
O woodland glade so green with spring!
You shall live in me for evermore—
There reality became a dream,
There dream became reality!

Pop Goes the Tunnel

Don PasqualePopup Opera Present Don Pasquale at The Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe

If I were the vindictive type, I’d use this review to get revenge for being shot in the eye with a water pistol!  But I’m not and I won’t.  Instead I will say that Popup Opera gave their usual superb performance: something I have come to expect after attending only one of their previous shows.

The company have become adept at adapting to different spaces and maximising the advantages of each situation.  The tunnel shaft at the Brunel Museum is completely unlike the small room in a private club where I watched L’elisir D’amore. Reached by crawling through a hole and climbing down a scaffold, this cathedral-like space with its marvellous acoustics allowed the cast to give full reign to their vocal talents.  Raúl Baglietto gave a solid professional vocal performance as Don Pasquale, and, as the main character, did a wonderful job of holding the show together.  Visually, he portrayed the Don’s emotions in a very realistic manner, despite the overall comic feel of the piece.  Cliff Zammit Stevens’ (Ernesto) tenor was once again piercingly sweet, and his exuberance as the young man in love was able to be expressed fully in this much larger space.  Ricardo Panela’s performance was even more powerful than in L’elisir D’amore, and, as the doctor whose machinations basically create the story, he was both lively and amusing.  Clementine Lovell (Norina) also used the bigger space to put her physical comedy skills to good use, and as the only woman she stole the show vocally.  Her exquisite soprano seemed to soar to the top of tunnel and encircle the audience, like a nightingale’s song suddenly appearing out of the stillness.

The cast utilised the whole of the space to implement their silent-movie comedia style, which was very effective and greatly enhanced by Harry Percival’s slick and witty captions.  This focus on the physical comedy allowed Director Darren Royston to take a much larger role in the proceedings, playing several roles, all hilarious.  We even got to hear him sing as the Notary, albeit only a couple of notes at a time.

I will leave the final words to another audience member who was attending her first ever opera:  “I thought I was going to like it, but I absolutely loved it.  I want to go again soon.  It was amazing!”

You can catch Don Pasquale as it pops up at various venues throughout May, or see the company in their summer tour of Rita/La Serva Padrona.  For more information visit popupopera.co.uk.

Mary Tynan

Don Pasquale

Top of the Pops

Popup Opera present L’elisir D’amore at Blacks, Soho.

image003As operas go, L’elisir D’amore stretches the viewer’s credibility surprisingly little, story-wise.  Donizetti’s opera is a simple story of unrequited love which becomes requited, with merely a love potion, a flour magnate and a wealthy uncle to complicate things, which allows one to concentrate upon the music and the performance, both being worthy of our attention.

Popup Opera specialise in unusual spaces, and this venue (a small room in a private club in Soho) is certainly that.  Reminiscent of Studio 503, where I saw some wonderful Chekhov last year, the performers are almost literally in your lap.  (Ricardo Panela, making his entrance as Belcore, tripped over my feet, looked at me and said “I’m sorry” and then started to sing).  This close up view allows the audience to appreciate much that might go unnoticed in a larger space in terms of emotional acting, and also the ‘comedia’ style, which the company employ to great effect.

A common reviewer’s complaint is that it is difficult to single out individuals for special praise; in this case it is impossible: not because nobody stood out, but because everyone was outstanding.  Cliff Zammit Stevens, as Nemorino (the only tenor role) played the lovesick young man to perfection and gave a piercingly beautiful rendition of Una Furtiva Lagrima (the opera’s most famous aria), despite performing it with a box of man-size tissues in hand.  Ricardo Panela gave a commanding performance as Belcore, the pyramid flour salesman who almost wins the girl.  Thomas Kennedy put his rich baritone and pantomime skills to excellent use as Dulcamara, the patent medicine man.  Penelope Manser is a powerful soprano and talented comic, who really came into her own in the second act.  Clementine Lovell was seemingly effortlessly delightful, charming and compelling both vocally and in terms of stage presence throughout as Adina.  Add to that the fact that Clementine is also the producer (aided by assistant and extremely creative stage manager Fiona Johnston) and founder of the company, and my admiration is guaranteed.

image008It is difficult in a small venue to keep the volume to a comfortable level while still keeping full passion and power in the voice, but all five of the singers managed this brilliantly.  Musical director James Henshaw provided strong musical accompaniment which ranged from highly moving to, at times, having the flavour of a silent comedy movie.  Harry Percival’s quirky captions also contributed greatly to the humour of the piece (they’re funny, yeah?).  Darren Royston did a marvellous job, both as director and MC.

I think this is probably the best opera I’ve ever reviewed.  Go and see for yourself, but be warned: there is audience participation (of a mild and unthreatening sort!)

L’elisir D’amore will be popping up at various venues around London throughout April.  For more information visit popupopera.co.uk.

Mary Tynan

With Your Hands You Clap Clap Clap!

Co-opera Co presents Hansel and Gretel at John McIntosh Arts Centre

I thought I wasn’t familiar with this opera before last night: as a child studying music. Humperdinck was not one of the composers I learnt about, and I’m afraid I encountered the music of the 1960s Englebert before I realised he was named after an eminent musical predecessor.   However, upon hearing that I was attending Hansel and Gretel that evening, a colleague advised me that I would recognise lots of songs from my childhood.  He was right, the aria which provides the title of this piece being but one of them (I have been singing it all day).  This, of course, added a lovely sense of recognition to my enjoyment of the evening.

The action was initially set in 1950s Britain, but later seemed to move forward in time; with the witch using an overhead projector and a camera vintage 70s or 80s, and marking the contents of her fridge “Best Before 2013.”  The set was broadly based around the mother’s washing business, and some of the garments from the washing line were used as Chinese lanterns at the end of the story to great effect.

Musically, this was of a high standard, starting with the orchestra (conducted by Stephen Higgins), whose overture set the tone for the night, being both beautiful and haunting.  There was no chorus, so the production was the work of only five singers (mother doubling with witch).  All five gave excellent vocal performances, with Rahel Moore’s Sandman being particularly evocative.

The show was very well choreographed, and the cast’s movement skills were wonderful, especially Carris Jones’ drag queen witch, and Gretel’s jerky puppet steps.  Lone man Stephen John Svanholm played the exuberant, drunken father very well, and Susanne Holmes portrayed Hansel with all the exuberance of boyhood.  With such a tight cast and consistent performance, it is difficult to pick out a favourite, but personally I was particularly impressed by Llio Evans (Gretel).

When an adult woman plays a small child, there is a very real danger of her ending up looking like Baby Jane.  The audience had nothing to worry about on that score, however, as Llio’s physicality perfectly captured that of a little girl.  The way she stood, walked, moved her arms, and her facial expressions were all ideally calculated to convey Gretel’s emotions (her terror in the forest at night is a good example).  Her singing was consistently skilful and accomplised: I especially enjoyed her opening aria of Act II.

All in all, Co-opera Co have done a marvellous job with Hansel and Gretel, and much credit is due to director James Bonas, working with the company for the first time.  As he said when I interviewed him prior to the performance, (Hansel and Gretel is) “an absurdly brilliant opera.  It’s full of music so delicious you want to eat it and it’s joyfully short but densely written so that it’s packed with action.”  The same can be said for this production.

Hansel and Gretel, along with Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute will now go on a nationwide tour.  For more information, please visit www.co-opera-co.org.

Mary Tynan

Twiglets, Cocaine and Formaldehyde

Co-opera Co presents Don Giovanni at John McIntosh Arts Centre

This is the second production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni I have seen this year (I reviewed the production at Heaven back in April  – see One Night in Heaven).  Although Co-opera’s was not as hilariously smutty as the gay offering, it was nevertheless a very sexy, and funny, performance.

Right from the outset the orchestra set the tone – the playing was flawless and evocative throughout the evening, led by conductor Tim Murray.

The standard of acting in this performance was high from the start: David Milner-Pearce played the Don as a dissolute Damien Hirst-type artist to perfection, whilst Yair Polishook (Leporello) made an excellent sidekick.  The opening rape scene was very effective with Lisa Wilson (Donna Anna) playing the victim very well.  Susanna Fairbairn (Donna Elvira) made a good jilted lover, whilst Jerome Knox (Mazetto) gave a solid performance throughout the show, with the stage combat between him and David Milner-Pearce being particularly well executed.

I had been told that the production was to be anything but traditional, and that was certainly the case.  Much of the action was set in the Don’s art gallery where naked shop dummies (with pubic hair) continued the Hirst theme.  There were many amusing and interesting touches such as the Don photographing the dead father on his mobile phone; a smartphone ap (Leporello’s) which keeps a record of all the women the Don has seduced – Yair Polishook singing very well on this aria; the Don singing a serenade to the backing of a ringtone (aptly rendered by the orchestra);  the Don’s lines “I find the working class is only turned on by clothes that come from Primark” and “Since I’m spending so much money, I expect to be amused” as he is eating take away chips and pizza from yellow plastic boxes.  Twiglets and cocaine also make appearances.

Vocally, there were many wonderful moments.  Some of my favourites were Donna Elvira’s “Rip out that Heart with Glee”, the chorus number “Pleasure Tonight”, Robyn Allegra Parton (Zerlina)’s first duet with the Don, Don Ottavio, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, disguised Ali-G style, singing “Avenge my broken heart,” Don Giovanni and Leporello’s “Glorius I shall return.”  For my money the best male vocal performance was by David Menezes (Don Ottavio), but overall the women outshone the men, with Donna Anna’s solo “The God I cherish will come and grant me rest” being hauntingly beautiful.

The opera finishes with Il Commendatore (Matthew Tomko) returning to the grave to drag the Don down to hell, and this he does in a suitably menacing and eerie manner.  The chorus close by singing “That’s the fate of evil men” as Don Giovanni goes to join his own artistic creations, becoming yet another glass case dummy in a rather Roald Dahl-esque ending.

Don Giovanni’s second night is 24 August 2012, Hansel and Gretel is on 23 and 25 2012, all shows at 7.30pm at John McIntosh Theatre, Seagrove Road, London SW6 1RX.  Tickets are priced between £10-25 and can be purchased online at http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/user/?region=xxx&query=schedule&promoter=co-opera.  The theatre is wheelchair accessible, and free parking is available next to the John McIntosh Arts Centre.  Both operas, along with The Magic Flute, will then go on tour nationwide.  For more information, please visit www.co-opera-co.org.

Mary Tynan

Co-Opera Co – Singers Helping Singers

This summer, Co-Opera Co. will present two much-loved operas, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, at the John McIntosh Theatre of the London Oratory School.  On tour later in the year, the company will also revive its successful production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. All three operas will be sung in English.

Founded by soprano Kate Flowers and lighting designer Paul Need, Co-Opera Co is an innovative opera company, striving to help singers earn while they learn, and promote the welfare of professional opera singers.  I asked Kate to tell me how the company started and how it has progressed since its small beginnings.

After our first discussions about the lack of an apprenticeship stage in a singers’ training – over far too many glasses of red wine one night in Dublin!  – Paul and I decided that we should do something about it.  I suggested one to one sessions – he suggested starting our own training opera company!  So it is Paul we have to thank for being the driving force behind Co-Opera Co, from its inception.  I set about calling all my friends and colleagues in the business – over 50 of today’s eminent artists who became our members – and Co-Opera Co was formed on June 13th 2008.”

We first opened our doors in January 2009 with a series of weekend workshops run by our members, one of whom was the legendary Philip Langridge, sadly no longer with us. In August that year we ran our first summer season, with two performances each of Albert Herring and La Boheme – produced in just three weeks (we must have been mad!), with the wonderful Chroma Ensemble as our orchestra.”

To give the singers the chance to see what it would be like to perform in a different space, the company also took both shows for one performance each to The New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.

2010 was the year the Co-Opera Co Orchestra was formed, and the company toured 7 performances of La Boheme and the Marriage of Figaro to 7 UK venues in four weeks.  2011 saw the tour grow to 25 performances in 12 weeks, with two new productions, The Magic Flute and Carmen.

Leading up to their summer season and UK tour in the autumn the company runs a comprehensive training programme, Connections, where participants work on every aspect of opera.  I asked Kate Flowers to give me a flavour of how it works.

“Connections has grown out of those weekend workshops back in 2009 and has again developed in a very organic way, taking into consideration what singers have told us that they want – this year we held a series of one day workshops in the spring.  Each workshop was run by one of our members working with up to 12 singers. Each workshop had a theme suggested by the member running the workshop – Sir Thomas Allen for instance wanted to work with the singers on Listening and Reacting;  Janis Kelly on Body, Soul and Voice; and David Parry wanted to work on singing True Bel Canto.  With everything that we have learned about what singers need, Janis Kelly is developing a fully integrated 3 month course – Professional Connections – which will cover every aspect of being an opera singer, and we are also working on a new course – Opera Matters – for opera enthusiasts and those singers who perhaps do not wish to follow a professional career but who nevertheless would like to explore the genre and work on their personal progress.”

“Because we work with so many levels of ability – and we have no age limit – in the various training programmes we run – to be honest, we will accept applications from anyone who has a real desire (and ability) to be involved in opera.  Obviously for the touring operas we need to be able to present a truly professional standard of performance (and therefore performers) to the audiences – and to the theatres.”

We have had singers as young as 15 – our Harry in Albert Herring for instance – Marina Lawrence-Marrha – and this year we have a singer aged over 60 in The Midsummer Night’s Dream – neither of them have any qualifications – other than a true ability and a longing to sing/perform.  (Marina by the way is just about to start a foundation year at the Urdang Studios and we like to think that her experience of performing with Co-Opera Co. went a long way to developing her aptitude and enthusiasm for performing – she is simply wonderful.)”

This year the company is rehearsing four operas over four weeks – Hansel and Gretel, Don Giovanni and a revival of The Magic Flute for a tour to 12 venues – at the moment (still more in the pipeline), preceded by a new venture: the Summer Opera, which is a four week course in which 30 singers work on their own opera ( A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the Director Peter Watson, Conductor David Gostick and Choreographer Jenny Weston, performed at the John McIntosh Theatre on 17th and 18th August.

James Bonas, Director of Hansel and Gretel, believes the work of Co-opera is very important, because “There is a real shortage of programmes and performance possibilities for younger singers to gain experience once they’ve left formal training. The opportunity for near enough a hundred people to spend a summer together doing coaching, master classes, and rehearsals in one place is remarkable. It’s the chance for everyone to make contacts, get experience and take hold of some big roles that they wouldn’t yet get their hands on in the larger companies.”

James also told me about the people involved and the rehearsals for Hansel and Gretel.  “The cast is small actually – just five singers.  Then we’ll have the Co-Opera orchestra and backstage there are the stage manager, deputy stage manager and assistant stage manager.  Rehearsals have been swift. We’ve had a couple of weeks working in a rehearsal room and now we’ll have a couple of weeks onstage doing technical work, lighting and then bringing in the orchestra. With those time frames there’s no mucking about – we started with a day of music and then were up on our feet staging the scenes the next morning.”  

They did spend one Saturday morning playing games and dancing with the singers playing Hansel and Gretel.  “It’s always so important as an adult acting a child that you remember that the child is not childish – they don’t walk strangely, they don’t pull faces constantly and they don’t whine. I think we have a tendency to do an impression of a kid rather than simply being very direct and straightforward in the world – which is what young children actually are.”

Talking about opening night (Thursday 23 August) James says, “I think it’s a bit like having a baby – a mixture of excitement and terror. You’re kind of looking forward to it but you know it’s going to take a heck of a push to get there.”

David-Milner Pearce, who is playing the title role in Don Giovanni, told me that this production is anything but traditional.  “It is set in a Contemporary Art Gallery and the Don himself is based around a Damien Hirst.  To keep thing current we have made slight tweaks to the libretto, but the translation by David Parry works very well.”

Kate and Paul’s vision for the future of the company is to eventually create a Centre of Excellence: “a theatre of our own with rehearsals studios, technical workshops, etc – based around a main touring company and with a training arm for professionals and non-professionals of all ages. A lottery win would certainly help with that!!  But in the absence of that, we are aiming to  build a commercial side of the business to provide year long employment to our associates – and our beloved Co-Opera Co. Orchestra –  by moving our rehearsals for the touring productions to Easter next year, in order to prolong the touring season to include the festival market, and developing the Summer Opera Course so that August becomes the focus of the training element – and of course Janis Kelly’s Connections Programme- and Opera Matters –  which we hope to launch next spring.

Lastly, I asked Kate Flowers what Co-Opera Co means to her.  “Everything – well after my three sons and my mum that is.”

“Since Paul Need and I first started talking about the possibility of helping singers as they enter the profession, I have found that my time – and Paul’s – has become almost entirely devoted to running the company, coaching and training the singers and generally making sure that Co-Opera Co. achieves what we set out to achieve four years ago.  I would like to emphasize that everything we are doing here at Co-Opera Co. is done with no outside funding whatsoever – we rely on box office sales – especially in our London shows during August which have the potential to raise enough money to significantly reduce the unfortunately inevitable deficit we will face at the end of the season, and that whilst we pay all our members for the work they do with our singers, musicians and technicians, and we pay our associates for their performances and pay for and organise travel and accommodation on tour, neither Paul nor I have paid ourselves a penny during the past four years – and we will not even consider doing so until we have reached the point where no-one has to be asked for a contribution.  I say this because there might be a perception that there is something other than altruistic about the way we run Co-Opera Co.  To be honest, I would never have imagined that I could ever be so enthused about something that had no personal financial gain – and I think I can speak for Paul too here – but we really are doing this, we believe, for the greater good.”

Don Giovanni is on 22 and 24 August 2012, Hansel and Gretel on 23 and 25 2012, all shows at 7.30pm at John McIntosh Theatre, Seagrove Road, London SW6 1RX.  Tickets are priced between £10-25 and can be purchased online at http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/user/?region=xxx&query=schedule&promoter=co-opera.  The theatre is wheelchair accessible, and free parking is available next to the John McIntosh Arts Centre.

The tour covers Croydon, Yeovil, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Epsom, Manchester, Bury St Edmunds, Wellingborough, Buxton, Camberley, Blackpool, Hertford, and Southport, with further dates to be announced.  For more information please visit www.co-opera-co.org.

Mary Tynan

One Night in Heaven

RC Theatre Productions presents Don Giovanni, The Opera, at Heaven

Those of you who remember the 1980s will find much nostalgia in this highly original reworking of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  Richard Crichton’s production aims Mozart at a new audience and reinvents Don Giovanni himself as a gay, debauched playboy and nightclub owner in the heady world of the 1980s.

Cleo Pettit’s set is the first thing you notice on entering the club, and straightaway you are conveyed to 1987, the time being marked by various graphics of the period, including a conservative party campaign poster, film posters for Dirty Dancing and The Running Man, and a mock up of the Thames Television ident (5 years before they lost the franchise to Carlton).  The evocation of the era is also greatly aided by the costumes, designed by Mia Flodquist, with the assistance of Samantha Gilsenan, which show great attention to detail.  Two personal favourites of mine were Marina’s white lace boots, and Leo’s office handbag.  Finally, the hair and makeup by Evan Huang also helped to set the scene.

All gender roles in the opera have been reversed apart from the Don himself (now just Don), and the relocation of the sexual roles works very well.  Don’s pursuit of an endless series of sexual adventures and his indulgence in sensuality of all kinds lends itself to a gay world as readily as to a heterosexual one, and the addition of the late 80s drug scene adds further to the moral ambiguity of the story (although they have pre-empted the use of Viagra by more than a decade!).  The opera is performed in a new English translation by Ranjit Bolt, though I imagine the translation is far from literal.  Said to be inspired by New York’s legendary Studio 54 and Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake, the production seemed to draw ideas from many quarters.  In the early part of the story, Don reminded me of the character of Stuart in Queer as Folk, with broken hearts strewn left, right and centre; a later scene, where he is corrupting Milton Keynes sweethearts Zak and Marina, was evocative of the Rocky Horror Picture Show; but as the show progressed, and the libretto got more outrageous, it was reminiscent of the musical humour of the wonderful Avenue Q.

Musically, the opera was a delight.  The orchestra were tight, and played exceedingly well despite taking the time to laugh at some of the more amusing parts of the libretto.  Some interesting variation was provided by a disco backing track at one point (an adaptation of the Minuet by Vince Clarke), and Don accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar at another.  All the cast gave excellent performances as actors as well as singers: vocally my favourites were Mark Cunningham (Eddie) and Stephanie Edwards (Olivia) who both entranced me with their voices, though Duncan Rock, (Don) and Helen Winter (Marina) were also marvellous.

Don Giovanni kept its energy high throughout, and I assume this is a testament to the skills of director Dominic Gray.  The ending was a bit ambiguous – I wasn’t quite sure where Don ended up – but this in no way took away from my enjoyment of the evening; which ended with a blast of Falco’s Amadeus, thus tying the opera and the 80s together and rounding everything off nicely.  I highly recommend this inventive, capricious, laugh-out-loud, libidinous, and euphonious entertainment.  Catch it while you can – and look out for a surprise cameo from a famous camp disco group!

Don Giovanni is at Heaven, Under The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2N 6NG on the following dates: Sunday 22nd April, 5pm, Monday 23rd April, 7pm, Sunday 29th April, 5pm, Monday 30th April, 7pm.  Tickets can be purchased from http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/venueartist/254189/1677123?camefrom=CFC_UK_TH0401_WEBLINK

Mary Tynan

A Refreshing Addition to the London Fringe Scene

A Weekend at Vault

According to the publicity, Vault transforms a newly discovered labyrinth of tunnels underneath Waterloo to offer London three weeks of kaleidoscopically varied entertainment between 9 and 26 February 2012. Many of the shows in the festival are in the immersive theatre style, and whilst I have been a cast member in several immersive, promenade, and physical theatre shows, I have never been a spectator (aside from Alien Wars in the Trocadero many years ago). With this in mind, I went down to check out the opening weekend.

This was my first visit to the Old Vic Tunnels, and there was a certain frisson to arriving at Waterloo Station on a frosty February Saturday night, walking down the almost deserted street and descending the staircase into the graffiti covered underpass. Once at the door however, I was warmly welcomed and directed towards the bar to await the start of the 8pm performance.

Don’t Stray from the Path by the Wonder Club

I was excited about seeing this production, described as a beautifully dark spectacular promenade performance based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It started very well, with the action beginning in the bar as both Little Red Riding Hood and a musician sat on top of a couple of lockers, and other cast members came to talk to the soon to be audience. Eventually, we were all lead down the tunnel to the “Forest of Elsewhere,” where the adventure was to begin.

How to describe Don’t Stray from the Path? There was a strong physical theatre element to the show, including some excellent circus skills, and the promenade aspect was certainly there: however I think I have to come down on the side of performance art, as it was the meticulous attention to detail that really impressed me.

The Wonder Club made the decision to divide the venue into two levels, which almost doubled the room for installations, but I think it might have been better to use the height to elevate parts of the performance, particularly the aerial work, as the volume of people made it hard to see what was going on at times. The music was lovely, and one particular song held my attention during a dance where I could barely see the tops of the performers’ heads. The acting in this piece was dramatic rather than naturalistic, which I assume was a stylistic choice on behalf of the director. The ending was particularly good, with Red Riding Hood and the Woodsman bringing us full circle. The girls eerily smeared with chocolate on the way out were also very evocative of the dark side of fairy tales.

Overall, I enjoyed Don’t Stray from the Path, and would recommend it to fans of fairy tales, promenade theatre, and performance art. There were some very good ideas, and striking physical and musical performances from all concerned – it was a truly collaborative ensemble work, which makes it impossible to pick out anyone for special mention. I admired it on an intellectual level, but with a smaller audience and/or a bigger space, I could have really felt the Wonder.

Don’t Stray from the Path finished its run on 12 February. Visit http://thewonderclub.co.uk for details of future performances.

The Furies by Kindle Theatre

While waiting to get into the next performance, the queue was patrolled by bouncers, and T-shirts and CDs were on sale nearby. We entered a sweaty basement club, where we were greeted by the sound of pounding drums and guitar (Russell Collins and Phil Ward). And then came the girls.

The Furies is basically a rock opera telling the story of Clymtenestra. It is billed as a fusion of rock, metal and soul songs, but I would say that it is also heavily influenced by classical opera. Emily Ayres, Samantha Fox and Olivia Winteringham all have powerful voices and strong physical presence, and there wasn’t a dull moment either musically or story-wise in this audiovisual extravaganza. Clymtenestra was an operatic diva, some group songs wouldn’t have been out of place in a pop musical, and others, particularly those by Agamemnon, were pure heavy metal.

This wasn’t a promenade performance – the audience were not moving around following the action. As there was no seating, this meant standing in one spot for an hour, which for me meant being distracted from the enjoyment of the performance by physical discomfort. It wasn’t until I moved to the side and held on to a lighting rig, that I was able to be carried away by the music. Putting in seating appropriate to the setting, ie, rough chairs and tables, would only add to the atmosphere and make the audience’s experience more enjoyable – it would also make some of the show easier to see.

The Furies starts on a high and keeps getting higher, climbing to a spectacular finale. Although the staging is interesting and atmospheric, it would work equally well in a traditional theatre setting. Unfortunately I had to leave before the encore, as the next show was due to start. This is definitely one to watch. Thoroughly entrancing, mesmerising music.

The Furies is playing at Vault for the rest of the festival, ie, Thursday – Sunday until 26 February. Visit www.kindletheatre.co.uk for more information on the company.

The Great Puppet Horn by Pangolin’s Teatime

The final show of the evening was The Great Puppet Horn. Comfortably seated in the front row, I looked forward to something that would once again be a complete contrast to what had gone before. Accompanied by the Harry Potter theme music, Jeremy Bidgood and Lewis Young appeared on stage to introduce their show (the horn is ambiguous, apparently).

Puppets and political satire proved to be a serendipitous combination, and I was soon howling with laughter at The Boy Who Lived – in the East Wing (David Cameron). The audience were treated to magical explanations for university fees and immigration policy, and told about the influence of boy bands on the economy. There were also other non-political topical comedy sketches, such as The Life of Brian (Cox). But my personal favourite was Grammar Cop. Being somewhat of a pedant, grammar-wise, and a part-time English teacher to boot, it was hilarious to watch him battle his arch-enemy Mr A Postrophe.

This is basically a traditional comedy show with shadow puppets – which were excellent by the way: the skill in both their manufacture and use was evident. The only audience interaction was when, during the Grammar Cop sketch, there was a threat of reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquay – I couldn’t help begging them not to.

The Great Puppet Horn was well-paced, with the laughs coming thick and fast, and I had tears in my eyes by the end of the performance. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Pangolin’s Teatime on our television screens soon. Catch them if you can.

Like The Wonder Club, Pangolin’s Teatime finished their run at Vault on 12 February. Visit http://pangolinsteatime.com for news of future shows.

Vault Lates – Itchy Feet

As the puppet show was 20 minutes late in finishing, the vintage dance party was well under way when I returned to the bar area. If I say that Booker T & the MG’s Green Onions was playing when I entered, and that the last song I heard was Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson, it will give you a flavour of the sort of floor fillers being spun by the DJ. The floor was hopping, though not unpleasantly crowded. If I’d had a friend with me I would have danced the night away, but, as I was alone, I left, like Cinderella, at midnight, to catch the last train home, already looking forward to returning the next night.

One night only at Vault. www.itchyfeetonline.co.uk

La Boheme by Silent Opera

Audience members at Silent Opera are given headphones to wear throughout the performance, through which the live singing is mixed with the pre-recorded score. This is a very clever means of having a full orchestral sound in a fringe venue. The sound quality was excellent throughout, which I assume was due to Sound Designer Ed Currie.

After checking our coats in the cloakroom, the audience found ourselves wandering round a Christmas market where Colline (Tim Dickinson) tried to interest me in a Greenpeace campaign. We were then escorted upstairs to Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline and Schaunard’s flat, where the opera began.

We were moved between several locations during the course of the show: some worked better than others. The flat, for example, was excellent, with various forms of seating round the outside (I sat on a blow up chair the first time) and the action taking place in the middle. The scene in the bar worked pretty well also. However, the occasions where the audience was standing three deep against the wall didn’t make for good visibility (I kept missing all the snogging bits!) and I would have found Mimi’s death scene more moving had I not been sitting on a cushion on a crowded floor.

I am a bit of a sucker for opera, and have been lucky enough to see both the Royal Opera and the ENO over the years. Musically, Silent Opera gave them both a run for their money. The score, by the London Symphony Orchestra, was wonderful, and all of the singers gave flawless vocal performances with emotion and pathos. The acting was strong, particulary by Mimi (Emily Ward), Rodolfo (Alistair Digges), and Colline (Tim Dickinson), as well as by those in the non-singing parts. Daisy Evans’ libretto was clever, interesting, and quite funny in places. The setting of modern day London worked well, and the headphones seemed to add, rather than distract from, that sense of being absorbed in the story which to me is the sign of good theatre (particularly opera or musical). I would have no hesitation in recommending this production to anyone, whether an opera buff, or someone experiencing the genre for the first time.

Silent Opera is playing at Vault for the rest of the festival, ie, Thursday – Sunday until 26 February. Visit http://silentopera.co.uk for more information on the company.

So, after spending the weekend at Vault, what are my feelings on immersive theatre? They are mixed. Don’t Stray from the Path was a promenade performance with lots of audience interaction, but with the other shows the audience interaction was limited and sporadic. Yes, I was close to the performers, but that is generally the case at fringe venues. I think perhaps there is a delicate performer/audience balance that needs to be achieved – although I am not suggesting one audience member at a time, as happens in some productions.

In conclusion, I would encourage one and all to visit Vault before 26 February when the festival finishes. All the performances have something to recommend them, and the venue is warm and welcoming. It truly does offer a kaleidoscope of entertainment.  A refreshing addition to the London fringe scene.

Although The Wonder Club and Pagolin’s Teatime have both finished their run at the vaults, the studio performances are constantly changing. Both The Furies and Silent Opera are running till 26 February. More Vault Lates are on 17, 18 and 24 Febuary. There is also a cinema, where the Flicker Club hosts a season of horror films (mostly Hammer). Visit http://www.thevaultfestival.com for more details and booking.

Mary Tynan