Review: NO FOR AN ANSWER, Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre

A neat production and an excellent cast

By: Jul. 28, 2023
Review: NO FOR AN ANSWER, Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre
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Review: NO FOR AN ANSWER, Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre Review: NO FOR AN ANSWER, Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre No For An Answer is a curious opera to revive. It has only seen rare performances since its premiere in 1941, but a strong score, a neat production by Mehmet Ergen and an excellent cast certainly make it worth a watch, even if it has several plot-related issues.

Composer Marc Blitzstein’s music may not be forgotten, but it is certainly underperformed. The strongest aspect of Answer is its score, which is constantly engaging and fits with the plot, whether dark and broody as in "No for an Answer" or more upbeat and amusing as in "Penny Candy". There are plenty of spoken sections in the opera, but with few exceptions, the music is always there in the background, simply working its magic.

Dan Turek is both the musical director and a more than capable pianist who brings the score to life. He is joined by a strong cast, some of whom are actors rather than singers, but this fits the local, working-class setting of the opera. While not all numbers might be performed at a pristine level musically, the cast always add a lot of character to their performances.

Set in the 1930s, the opera unfolds in the Diogenes Social Club – or Nick’s lunch counter – where a range of unemployed Greek-American workers discuss how to cope with the economic crisis, but also - simply to boost morale - engage in socials, card games, and more. Meanwhile, they are under constant threat from the hotel owners’ Resort Association who fear the threat of a forming union and send a group of thugs to attack them.

The narrative introduces a variety of characters. Joe (Michalis Antoniou) is a union organiser who returns home at the peak of unemployment. His father Nick (Panayotis Petrakis) owns and runs the Diogenes Social Club and is, in some ways, at the heart of the group. Paul (Ashley Gilmour) is a rich intellectual who attempts to mingle with the workers although he ultimately fails to truly understand them; whereas Clara (Mared Williams), his wife, truly understands and empathises with their struggle in the end, despite being a rich girl and sister of a congressman.

There are yet more characters, and this list, perhaps, hints at one of the larger pitfalls of No For An Answer: there’s a lot going on. While the idea to have the social club be the protagonist isn’t a bad one, a lot of it seems spread too thin. It’s not surprising: in the original version of the opera, Blitzstein had material for six hours, whereas this version is cut down to just about two. Consequently, there are necessary gaps in the drama.

This is a pity since the good moments are fantastic. Joe and Francie (Katrina Michaels) singing "Francie" together is an enjoyable, almost innocent, escape from the horrors of what occurs around them; Clara singing "In the Clear" is an outstanding quiet moment in the heat of the action – performed smashingly by Williams. The finale, too, is a striking culmination.

The production itself is comparatively harmless, with period costumes and sets by Bolu Dairo. It’s straightforward in that we find ourselves in a small restaurant with various tables and a bar, and almost all of the action takes place here, although it’s also not particularly novel.

Despite its flaws, No For An Answer is still perfectly watchable and this is a strong production. Thematically it also links to the current economic crisis, although this comparison with contemporary Britain shouldn’t be overstated: it’s still very much of its time, even if the music is exciting and a joy to listen to.

Part of Grimeborn 2023, which runs until 23 September. No For An Answer runs until 29 July.

Photo Credit: Alex Brenner


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