Simon Walsh has been enjoying the return of theatre


After a year in the doldrums with so many false starts and delayed openings, shows are back on, people are performing once more, and the numerous Covid-19 restrictions have been surmounted.

One of the first to get back to business was The Prince of Egypt (Dominion Theatre, London). Adapted from the DreamWorks film with great skill and originality, it’s the Moses-Pharaoh story and a wonderful stretch-out of Exodus 1-14. Miriam doesn’t give us ‘horse and rider thrown into the sea’ but the 11 o’clock is ‘When you believe (There can be miracles)’, also made famous Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. There’s movement and dance, fidelity to Scripture, a fair look at Jewish identity, and a lot of fun. Poignancy too, especially with the Plagues. Composed by Stephen Schwartz who gave us Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked, this is a very entertaining few hours. Highly recommended for parish trips, Sunday School outings, and any kids.

The Open Air Theatre (Regent’s Park, London) rolled its abandoned 2020 schedule over into this year and the big musical was Carousel, although there was confusion. Transplanted from the eastern seaboard of the United States to somewhere indeterminate in the north east of England, with a range of accents to match, and a brass band to start things off in the overture. It felt like a pit-town cliché and perhaps wanted to make some sort of Brexit or Red Wall point, but then the pandemic and an alarming rise in domestic violence, so the storyline (which is there in the show) was brought to the fore. The creative team went back to the original source material (Hungarian play Lilliom) and fiddled with the ending so there is no redemption at the end for Billy Bigelow who is simply imprisoned in a purgatorial cage of fairground poles by angry women. His tragic death is turned back into a suicide too, which doesn’t fit; R&H made all their careful changes for a reason. The costumes were Lowry-dour and the re-orchestration uninspiring. Joanna Riding was marvellous and the choreography of interest, but the rest was a bit grim.

Far better on the Rodgers & Hammerstein front was South Pacific at the Chichester Festival Theatre. An expert, finely-tuned production with stellar performances, this was faithful to the book yet still mined new depths in a piece that could so easily be old hat. Daniel Evans directed one of the most coherent and moving productions for a long time. It was also apposite; American forces deployed to Asia on stage whilst US troops were pulling out of Afghanistan. There really isn’t anything new under the sun. Alex Young and Gina Beck shared the role of Nellie and were utterly convincing to Julian Ovenden’s smooth but tortured Emile. Joanna Ampil brought a fresh reading of Bloody Mary; Happy Talk became powerfully wistful. Chichester has often transferred its productions in the past so let’s hope for another enchanted evening to come.

The one show that has given theatreland a shot in the arm bigger than any booster jab is Anything Goes (Barbican Theatre, London). Sutton Foster has been brought over from Broadway for the lead role of Reno Sweeney. She looks a million dollars (probably her salary too), can sing dance, act, do comedy. She’s megawatt stuff. The rest of the cast just about manages to keep up. Robert Lindsay proves what a great comic actor he is, Felicity Kendal totters through to the end, Gary Wilmot hams it up. The three-tier set is clever and all around Kathleen Marshall’s lively, energetic cast brings brio, bounce and joy to the flimsy plot which is little more than a showcase for the terrific Cole Porter songs. They loved being back on stage as much as we enjoyed seeing them there. It was a standing ovation and runs until 6 November.

Though Oliver Mears has been Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House since 2017, this new Rigoletto is his first outing there as stage director. The production replaces David McVicar’s lascivious version first staged in 2001 and sets a more cultured tone. Halfway through the overture, the curtain rises on a beautifully lit Caravaggio tableau. Monterone is blinded by the Duke, like Gloucester in Lear. This is, after all, an opera about darkness and seeing. Much is observed from the shadows, and the opening lines are the Duke singing his intent to have the girl he has been looking at in church every Sunday these past three months. She is Gilda, and so with Monterone’s curse on the court for the Duke having defiled his daughter, as we discover the girl from church is Rigoletto’s own beloved daughter, there is tragic inevitability. Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan (last seen as Alfredo in Traviata) is sweet and a little soppy, like a puppy. He never convinces as a villain but you can see why everyone falls at his feet. Lisette Oropesa is perfect: her Gilda is naïve and hopeful, she sings with poise and clarity. It’s a deeply affecting performance. Carlos Alvarez (last seen in La Forza) is drenched in the role and gives a masterful Rigoletto. In Act I, he’s in court jester costume with his face painted like Batman’s Joker; for the rest of the night he’s in a double-breasted suit. There’s a bit of Gotham dystopia there and Mears has not gone down the easy #metoo route (“all big men are monsters”), finding instead the evil inherent in all who enable the banality of evil. Pappano conducts tenderly, if with surprising and daring slowness at times, and always with his usual skill in bringing out lines and detail in the score. It comes back on in February 2022.