BWW Review: CARMEN, King's Head Theatre
My first memory of Carmen was not really Carmen at all. At primary school, I would return home for dinner (not lunch) when spam sandwiches would be presented with a cup of tea and Jimmy Young would be on the radio, his show a kind of aural Daily Mail. He played this record by Sammy Davis Jnr and I guess it stood out in my mind because its message about not backing down to bullies looms large in the playground world of a ten year-old.
Carmen is both sufficiently established in culture and sufficiently malleable to be shaped into any form a director chooses, so where better for a radical overhaul than the King's Head Theatre, with its long-established reputation for making opera into something that's opera (but not as we know it).
Mary Franklin and Ashley Pearson take us to the heart of Bizet's work, paring it back to the doomed love triangle between Carmen, Jose and Escamillio and then they tell their story. Moreover, they tell it in the London of today, with the in-jokes toppling over each other as London 2019 parallels Seville 1819. Because that's the thing about great art - it's universal, empathetic and no respecter of borders, temporal or geographic. Great art is a citizen of everywhere.
Jane Monari sings beautifully as the coquettish Carmen, fighting the dreary drudge that feeds the ennui of hollow lives, today's in-work poverty not so much physical as emotional. She doesn't know what she wants, but she knows it's not this.
As Jose, Mike Bradley is just as good vocally, but he also delivers some of the finest acting I've seen at this venue - he has a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jose's world collapses, and he does it with a wit and charm that curdles credibly into pathological jealousy.
Dan D'Souza gets plenty of the comic stuff, his look as Escamillio perfectly realised, his timing more than enough to get him a gig in the next Charles Court Opera pantomime. It's a turn all right, but never quite a cartoonish caricature.
If the end comes a little quickly, with the denouement somewhat disappointingly understated (though it's not easy to stage it in so intimate a space), much of what goes before is wonderfully entertaining, Juliane Gallant's and David Eaton's keyboards nicely balanced with the voices and plenty enough to carry those familiar tunes. The action and cast may be scaled back, but the music and voices more than make up for it with the immediacy of their power.
In a show of hands, only about five people in the house were at their first opera (they'll be back) which is a credit to the reputation the King's Head Theatre has built for its boutique productions. But this show really is an ideal introduction to the art form, one that punctures just about every prejudice anyone holds about it. See for yourself!
Photo Nick Rutter