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Belters and bohemians: Opera Locos @Sadlers_wells

At the start of the Opera Locos performance, the announcement says that they really are singing. You could be forgiven for wondering that, given the amplification turns up the backing track and the voices so loud that you can't always tell what's real. But this is a mostly harmless and slightly eccentric blend of opera classics fused with the occasional pop classic. However, recognising the pop tunes would help if you were over a certain age. The most recent of them dates back twenty years. It's currently playing at the Peacock Theatre .  Five performers play out a variety of archetype opera characters. There's the worn-out tenor (Jesús Álvarez), the macho baritone (Enrique Sánchez-Ramos), the eccentric counter-tenor (Michaël Kone), the dreamy soprano (María Rey-Joly) and the wild mezzo-soprano (Mayca Teba). Since my singing days, I haven't recognised these types of performers. However, once, I recall a conductor saying he wanted no mezzo-sopranos singing with the s

Axes to grind: Lizzie @Swkplay

Production photo

Arriving at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant, there are plenty of pigeons (real and otherwise) inside and outside the theatre.  Having not been there since it opened at the start of the year, I figured it was an art installation.  Little did I know that it was a crucial part of Lizzie, the hard rock, full-throated true crime rock musical.  Pigeons are solace from a stifling, oppressive life for an unmarried woman in 1890s Massachusetts.  And that is probably all the subtlety you'll get in this high-energy production.  It originated at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester and now makes a lot of noise in the Southwark Playhouse's basement venue. 

Based on the trial of the century in 1890s Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of murdering her stepmother and father with an axe.  Over time, everyone believed she had done it.  There's even a nursery rhyme about her.  This piece is less interested in the whodunnit and more in the whyshedunnit.  Set to a driving rock score.  

Production photo

Maybe it was the risk of being destitute and cut out of the will when their stepmother was due to inherit everything in the event of their father, Andrew Borden, passing.  Maybe it was the ambiguous lesbian relationship between her neighbour Alice Russell.  Perhaps it was the controlling and abusive relationship her father had with her.  All is explored here with a light touch and hard-core rock score.  But we are left without a doubt that Lizzie, her older sister Emma, Alice and their housekeeper conspired to do him in and keep her out of jail.

The musical by Steven Cheslik-Demeter, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt first premiered in 1990 and feels born in the era of experimental rock musicals.  Almost sung through, you don't have time to ponder whether it would be best described as a song cycle or in the tradition of other shows such as Spring Awakening or Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  It just moves through the story at breakneck speed, even when the songs should feel as if they are slowing down the action.  Last seen in London in 2017, but in the intimate space of the Southwark Playhouse Elephant venue, it feels intense.  Loud and intense.  The cast dance and gyrate with their headsets on and then switch to handheld microphones.  Projections abound, and the lights flash.  It's over the top and hard to resist as it builds a compelling case of women trapped in a world that seems to have no use for them.  

Production photo

By the time the murders come, it is such a cathartic release and depicted with such panache you're on her side.  Music, performance and staging conspire to make a high (and bloody) point for the show.

In the title role, Lizzie, Lauren Drew shines but is joined by the formidable talents of Shekinah McFarlane as Emma, Maiya Quansah-Breed as Alice and Mairi Barclay as Bridget.  It's a powerful quartet of voices and impeccable timing.  The show's second half quickly dispenses with the trial of the century, but not without pointing out that having a little money and being a woman has advantages. 

Directed and choreographed by William Whelton and music direction by Honor Halford-MacLeod, Lizzie continues at the Southwark Playhouse until 2 December before heading to the New Theatre, Peterborough, from 6 December.


Photos by Pamela Raith


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