Magazine article The Spectator

Great Expectations

Magazine article The Spectator

Great Expectations

Article excerpt

PUSH! Cambridge Arts Theatre Zaide Barbican

PUSH! is the first opera about childbirth, so Tête à Tête claims, and I'm sure rightly. Opera usually likes to concentrate on the other end of life, audiences much preferring to see people leaving than arriving. It would be absurd to make very large claims for PUSH! , and I'm sure Tête à Tête wouldn't want to. It is a brilliantly entertaining and in two prolonged scenes moving piece, with a dazzling text by Anna Reynolds and effective music by David Bruce. The action takes place in a delivery room, five women giving birth, interspersed with a couple of cleaners mopping up, and finally and triumphantly the female cleaner herself gives birth, just after, or more or less during, her day's routine mopping-up -- someone else will have to clean up after her.

Most of the scenes are funny, with excellent visual gags -- any dedicated attender of this superb company's shows will know how resourceful the producer Bill BankesJones is at combining colourful scenery and extravagant but ordinary gesturing to gain comic effects which the directors of most comic operas couldn't dream of. We run the gamut of women's attitudes towards birth, and cover a considerable range of experience, including a prisoner shackled to a bed with a male prison officer sitting beside her, and another knowing that her child is stillborn but asking to be allowed to dress him and hug him before he is taken away to be buried. The music is quite adequate to these two episodes, even if Janacek suddenly but pointedly intrudes.

The standard of singing and acting is astonishingly high, in fact leaves nothing at all to be desired. PUSH! is the same kind of thing as Jonathan Dove's Flight, a situation-opera which owes everything to smart staging and expert versatile performers;

but whereas Flight is outstaying its welcome, PUSH! will presumably go the way of Tête à Tête's other shows, and disappear except in the affectionate memories of those who saw it. The company, which under-advertises, has a website which I recommend consulting to see where, when and with what it is going to turn up next.

Though one could make modest but sensible claims for the social significance of PUSH! , it doesn't advertise itself under that aegis. Its strength is that it has no pretensions but would fulfil some modest ones if it did. The next evening, in one of those suspiciously pat operatic contrasts, I was at an event of which precisely the opposite was true. A performance of Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide at the Barbican was advertised as 'an anti-slavery opera for the 21st century', and the first 25 minutes of the evening were taken up with addresses from the platform by the director Peter Sellars, the director of Anti-Slavery International and the chief executive of the Poppy project, which supports women who have been sold into sexual slavery. …

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