Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Moderate Soprano; the Hairy Ape

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Moderate Soprano; the Hairy Ape

Article excerpt

The Moderate Soprano

Hampstead Theatre, until 28 November

The Hairy Ape

Old Vic, until 21 November

What is Glyndebourne? A middle-aged Bullingdon. That's a common view: a luxury bun fight for past-it toffs who glug champagne, wolf down salmon rolls and pass out decorously on the lawn. But the reality is that it caters to those of my class (lower-middle) who want to boost their pedigree with an eye-catching essay in sophistication. The Sussex opera house was founded in 1934 by John Christie, a passionate and eccentric millionaire who believed the public should suffer for his art. He hated the idea of suburban businessmen 'catching a show' for two hours in the West End before falling asleep on the train home. He wanted his audiences to devote an entire day to his productions. His first theatre, a 300-seat tiddler, was too small for his adored Wagner and he was persuaded by his German producers that Mozart would be a better match for the cramped venue. Christie considered the Salzburg ditty-meister a superficial talent but he accepted their advice and his opening season featured The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte .

Roger Allam is almost unrecognisable as the bald Christie with his thick grey thatch concealed by a wrinkled white scalp like the skin of a rice pudding. Allam's warm, rasping voice can move imperceptibly between exasperation and humour and he gives a brilliant account of Christie as a bluff, art-loving oddball at war with philistinism. Nancy Carroll plays his wife, the 'moderate soprano' (i.e. 'useless but tries hard'), who relied on Christie to ensure her inclusion in the Glyndebourne company. She's a typical pre-war simperer in a scarlet frock who dances attendance on her husband like a puppy in need of a biscuit. That's a shame. Carroll is a class act and she deserves better from a script that sometimes leaves her on stage for five minutes with nothing to do but stand there twinkling mutely.

The Moderate Soprano 's structure is a little guileless as it flits between the 1960s and the 1930s. A narrator trots in and out to tell us where we are. This sat-nav device excuses David Hare the labour and discipline of making the story spring organically from the interactions of the characters. And he touches obliquely on the great debate about nationalised art. Those who resent the prejudices of the Arts Council will realise from this play that the alternative, i.e. private sponsorship, generates an identical problem and leaves creative people at the mercy of wilful amateurs who want to bully, fume and interfere at every point. …

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