13 March 2008

Thespis - Normansfield Theatre, Sunday 9th March 2008


Scene: A Ruined Temple on the Summit of Mount Olympus
On Mount Olympus, the aged deities lament their waning influence. Mercury complains that the gods are lazy and leave all their duties to him. Jupiter says that matters have reached a crisis, but he is unsure what can be done about it. The gods see a group of mortals ascending the mountain, and withdraw to observe them from a distance.

Thespis's acting company enters for a picnic celebrating the marriage of two of its members, Sparkeion and Nicemis. Daphne, Sparkeion's former fiancée, annoys Nicemis by flirting with him. In retaliation, Nicemis flirts with Thespis.

Jupiter, Mars, and Apollo enter. All of the actors flee in terror, except for Thespis. Jupiter asks Thespis whether he is impressed with the father of the gods. Thespis replies that the gods are unimpressive, and suggests that they go down to earth in disguise to judge for themselves why people do not take them seriously. They agree that Thespis and his acting company will keep things running on Mount Olympus during the gods' absence. Each actor takes the place of one of the gods, with Thespis himself replacing Jupiter. Mercury stays behind to offer any advice the actors may need.

Act II
Under Thespis's direction, Olympus has been restored to its former splendour. However, Mercury says that the substitute gods are incompetent, and their experiments have wreaked havoc in the world below. For instance, the replacement for Mars is a pacifist, the replacement for Hymen refuses to marry anyone, and the substitute Bacchus is a teetotaller. The ersatz Apollo the god of day, goes out at night to protect Diana, the goddess of night, from coming to harm, and the substitute Venus decrees that babies are to be born full-grown. The actors also find that the romantic entanglements of the gods they've replaced conflict with their attachments in real life. Venus, played by Pretteia, is supposed to be married to Mars, but the actor playing Mars is her father. A possible solution is discovered in Venus having actually married Vulcan but Vulcan is her grandfather. Daphne has become the muse Calliope and claims, based on a bowdlerised edition of the Greek myths that Calliope was married to Apollo. However, Sparkeion, who took on the role of Apollo, is already married to Nicemis. Thespis is asked to rule on these issues, and, while he puts off judging Pretteia's case, he decides that Sparkeion is married to Daphne while they are gods, but his marriage to Nicemis will resume when they are mortals once again.

When the gods return they are furious at the disarray that Thespis's company have created. They watch incognito as Mercury presents to Thespis all of the complaints from earth that have accumulated while the gods have been gone. After listening to a long list of grievances, the gods shed their disguises and banish the actors from Olympus. As punishment for their folly, Jupiter sends them back to earth as "eminent tragedians whom no one ever goes to see."

Firstly, if you ever get the opportunity to see a show at this theatre (hidden away in the wilds of west London), go see - if only to see the theatre itself, which a perfect jewel, like something you would find inside a Faberge Easter egg. Decorated in High Pre-Raphaelite style, shimmering with darkly patinated gold leaf and decked with Rapturous Maidens (shades of Patience) and the kind of plant portraits that Rosetti would have had orgasms over, its an experience in itself. The sumptuous curtain (the old Music Hall "straight up and down" style rather than traditional velvet ones) is an added bonus. The relatively dim lighting only adds to its charm.

As predicted, the place was heaving with G&S Anoraks, flocking to see this lost G&S operetta, even on a dreary, wet Sunday afternoon in March. When I walked in the door, the average age of the audience fell by about 25%, I think. There were a fair amount of elderly women with sensible shoes who might well come out with "Stuff and nonsense", and lots of similarly-aged men with hairy ears, all wearing their M&S "Old Geezer" best - brown or grey slacks, comfy cardigans and matching kagoules. I dare say that many of them had bought a flask of tea along.

Quite what I was expecting I don't know. Its a very odd piece, owing a lot to the Edwardian love of "burlesque" and panto, the original script is not the least bit funny, and all the music save two pieces have been lost to posterity, one of which only survives because it found its way (in an emergency) into The Pirates of Penzance. Perhaps I should have read the programme properly, for on the cover it was stated "Music from Arthur Sullivan and Offenbach", which might have alerted me to the fact that I wasnt going to hear a complete, newly-composed score as I was, I think, expecting. Now, don't get me wrong - the score was perfectly adequate, well peformed by the orchestra and exuberantly conducted by Tim Henty (note: never sit right behind him, he's well over six foot and when there is no orchestra pit and he's giving it some welly, this means that a lot of the stage is obscured by what could easily double for the windmill in Don Quixote), but it did rather degenerate into a game of "spot the tune" - we got stuff from The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Gondoliers, and several other G&S's, as well as from Orpheus in the Underworld. Sullivan geeks like me picked up tunes from The Rose of Persia, and there was even some cod Don Giovanni. If you are familiar with the tunes, there is always an awful 20 seconds or so during which your brain stops paying attention to the stage and attempts to identfy them. Only when you've done this successfully do you switch back into proper listening mode. If you don't achieve recognition, you then sit there agonising for the remainder of the number (well, I do, anyway). But it did seem an awful cop-out to use tunes written a good many years later by the same composer. There may have been a number of "Henty originals" (I'm sure the overture was one, and the opening chorus another one) but more than these two I couldnt vouch for personally. A programme note about the transfer of music to Pirates said "No composer ignores good material" and perhaps there was a hint of self-justification about this. Still, kudos to Tim for managing to fit Gilbert's horrendously complicated lyrics to existing bits of Sullivan's music - particularly the fiendish patter songs - which can't have been anything like easy. The boy did good.

There was no chorus in this production, and several of the smaller roles had been incorporated into larger ones. There were also uneven numbers of gods and mortals - which showed up in the second act when the latter become the former, as not all the roles mentioned were covered. There should, for example, have been a "Venus" among the gods for her role to be taken over by a mortal, even though it would have been a super-numerary part. It also pointed up another difficulty of casting this show - all the gods must be cast from the more, shall we say, senior members of the company, and all the actors from the younger ones. I have to say that I didn't think much of the idea of portraying the actors as Edwardians rather than Greeks. Yes, I know that the sub-title of the piece is The Gods Grown Old, but the Edwardians were fervent Christians and didn't pay homage to the gods of the Greek pantheon. OK, call me a purist then.

Of the gods, Jill Pert was an excellent Diana - but then Jill Pert is an excellent anything. I long to see her Katisha, and I hear that she can even make the non-character of Little Buttercup into a fully-rounded person. She has a dry, knowing wit and sense of fun that drives across the footlights. Truly an ornament to the stage. Ian Belsey was fun as Apollo but, from the amount of eye shadow and lipstick he was sporting, would possibly have looked more at home with a dish of Trill, a cuttlefish and a little metal bell, or maybe as Louis XV (an interesting thought, as that gentleman styled himself as The Sun King and his gardens at Versailles are loaded with references to Apollo). Rebecca Seale as Mercury was not quite the glamourpuss that we are lead to believe the originator of the role, Nellie Farren, was and, at times, bore a remarkable resemblance both physically and vocally to a very young Barbara Windsor. She also had an irritating habit when front of stage of fixing her gaze on a point of the auditorium ceiling and singing to it, rather than making any kind of eye contact with the audience. Still, it has to be said that her diction during the horrendously fast patter songs was excellent.

On the mortal side, Richard Suart played Thespis as a larger-than-life version of Richard Suart, and on occasion completely overdid the melodrama to the point of ludicrousness. Him Indoors said that "You have to rise above the material, dahling" but my opinion veers towards "Less is Definitely More". It was an interesting idea to have the role of Sparkieon played as a "Trouser Role" (i.e. by a woman dressed up as a man) and Miranda Westcott did literally sparkle vocally. Martin Lamb made a fine and portly Tipseion, but, as the great Victoria Wood herself once wrote in a sketch, "Drop the Geordie, dear - its not coming across". David Menezes, as the Company Manager Timidon, was very good, seemingly characterising his role on the impressionist Alastair McGowan (currently to be found boring theatregoers -or at least those four I heard on the train recently - with his awful Mikado). Rachel Harland spoke and sung prettily but with perhaps a little over-enunciation, and I think that Sian Jones was rather wasted in the largely speaking role of Pretteia (portrayed as a slightly lunatic ballerina) if her solo during the opening chorus was anything to go by.

An interesting afternoon's entertainment, although I think it does show that what is lost sometimes deserves to remain lost. Gilbert certainly wasn't on top form when he wrote the libretto (proved by the fact that the script seemed to have been largely re-written for this production). Whether Sullivan was on top form we shall, unfortunately, never know. But if his performance that afternoon was anything to judge by, Mr. Henty is certainly a man to be watched - but not from the back.


Ian said...

O I love the idea of me being a budgerigar! Marvellous! A very interesting review, although I think you're getting your eras mixed up - Thespis is very much an Victorian piece, not Edwardian. Sullivan was after all dead at the end of the century. As far as we can judge without really knowing we did try an emulate a type of performance akin to that of the time (hence my beautiful make-up).

It was a worthwhile project to attempt, and I would say that for the most part a diverting entertainment.

Anonymous said...


This review seems to be getting around!

Michael Angelico said...

Hi Russell,

Just thought you might like to know about this: http://www.theatrepeople.com.au/reviews/thespis

It's a review of our Australian performance of Thespis which just closed a couple of weeks ago. They appear to have drawn heavily on your review to write theirs...

I think the best response would be a little Gilbertian sarcasm. Make them feel so small they could crawl through a keyhole. Without leaving their legs kicking behind.

Happy reviewing!
Avid lighting operator, G&S Opera Victoria

rtb said...

You are actually the second person to contact me about this! Having looked at their review, they have certainly used two phrases from my review verbatim but personally I consider that rather flattering - if people want to plagarise what I write, then it can only prove that what I have written is good enough to be plagiarised (thats as near Gilbert's wit as I can get, I think). What I really want to know is: how come so many people in Australia know about my blog??!!

I did, however, send them an email pointing out that "Climbing over rocky mountain" was actually originally from Thespis and parachuted into Pirates of Penzance (when Sullivan, en route to New York, realised that he had left some important musical numbers for Pirates behind in England), rather than the other way round. But of course you probably already knew that, seeing as you can quote Iolanthe verbatim! With our election due to start tomorrow, it brings the Fairy Queen's comment about being a Liberal-Conservative into really sharp focus as we expect a Liberal/Conservative hung parliament. How very prescient Gilbert was.

Tipseion said...

Hi Russell. Just to clear up any confusion - the Australian review was withdrawn and rewritten and reposted - so the version you saw bore only a passing resemblance to yours. Originally it was - no exaggeration - a word for word, cut and paste job, with just the names changed.

Me! said...

I saw the original version. I then contacted the Head Honcho of Opera Victoria and demanded that the review either be withdrawn, substantially edited or credited to me. It was then withdrawn and re-written.

Tipseion said...

Good, I'm glad you did that. There is never any excuse for plagiarism. I loved your account of the British production, by the ay. Made me feel like I was there! I really wanted to fly over to see it, but couldn't manage it, so read everything I could about it. Then ended up appearing in the Australian production - which is how I immediately recognised the review as a cut and paste job,