Arcola’s Grimeborn season kicks off in style with this ingenious re-imagining of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It is more musical theatre than opera but, with its varied and engaging music and some very witty words, it provides a sharp and amusing take on relationships in trouble – and offers the six young singers the opportunity to grab the audience’s attention with some in-your-face performances. As a Kardashian know-nothing I am perhaps unqualified to comment on the strand of the story that deals with the brief marriage of Kim and Kris but the universal nature of the way that relationships can founder over diverging interests made lots of sense on the night.
The show revolves around a young couple, played by Amelia Gabriel and Stephen Hyde, struggling to get on in their careers. To relax she tunes in to Keeping up with the Kardashians – he prefers to listen to Figaro and so they fight over the TV remote control! When the TV is tuned to the Kardashians Kim and Kris, played by Yasemin Mireille and James Edge, appear on stage and the musical genre is mostly pop and rap. When it’s Figaro the Count and Countess, played by Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett, appear and they sing mostly Mozart’s music but with new English lyrics. Stephen and Amelia sing music that sounds right out of contemporary musicals. This could have turned into a ragged mess but it doesn’t – the show hangs together in a really remarkable way and, when the three stories begin to melt into each other, we get some remarkably clever and tuneful ensemble moments.
The performances of all six principals are of high quality. Mireille manages to make Kim almost likeable and Edge plays the dim sports star with style. Burnett and Bellis are convincing opera stars. Hyde and Gabriel make the dilemmas of the young couple seem very real despite the unreality that begins to surround them.
Some of the production details felt unfinished. The amplification needs some more work to ensure the words are clearer … and why were the microphones all stuck to the singers’ foreheads? The orchestra of strings, keyboard and percussion was sometimes too loud leaving the mix with the singers unbalanced ….. but the music really drives on and Hyde manages the transitions from genre to genre brilliantly. Given the limitations of space that the tiny Arcola stage imposes, Stephen Hyde (who is composer, director and performer) manages the action ingeniously and paces the show well.
I confess I went to this show with low expectations – and with prejudices about the idea that reality TV stars might be worth a place in Mozart’s musical world. I came away with those feelings blown away and with a desire to see the show again in a bigger space with a better acoustic. But it is already a really enjoyable show with every reason to be a successful part of Grimeborn.