Saturday, July 09, 2011


at London’s Little Opera House at the King’s Head Theatre

Britten's claustrophobic treatment of Henry James would seem ideally suited to the tiny stage at Islington's King's Head.
Edward Dick's tightly focused production used a bare stage, two chairs and a gauze to conjure up the great house at Bly.
The projected images [Richard Bleasdale] added little to the atmosphere, but I liked the prologue, with David Menezes pacing around Katie Bird's damaged Governess with his case-notes in his hand, and at the last revealed as a psychiatrist, with the sinister Miss Jessel his nurse.

Modern dress is hard to square with the story – children are thankfully no longer entrusted to governesses – and this wicked world of mystery and imagination almost demands a period setting. I could put up with Quint's leather jacket, or Miles's trainers, but Mrs Grose [impressively sung by Laura Casey] I could not stomach as an overgrown teen from the Little Britain gallery of grotesques. Hair in bunches, Hug Me shirt, pigging sweets and swigging cola, she looked like the kind of babysitter you'd be wise to keep well away from your children. She was unnecessarily close to the new governess, too, I thought. And in general there was too much physical intimacy. The dark undercurrents, subtly suggested by Britten's score, are best kept under – we can surmise an unhealthy relationship between Quint and Jessel without seeing them enjoy a quickie on an uncomfortable wooden chair.

Musically there was much to admire, not least Musical Director David Eaton's heroic efforts at the piano, playing a fiendish reduction with sympathetic passion and superb technique. The children [Samuel Woof and Eleanor Burke on press night] were excellent at suggesting drowned innocence; Flora was beautifully sung, while Miles caught the subtle expression and meaningful glances that give his character its enigmatic allure. Menezes was a brooding, haunted Quint, using a broad dynamic range to develop an intense persona. Catrine Kirkman was a striking Jessel, dark, Gothic and a powerful presence. But the discovery of the evening was Katie Bird's Governess. Her fine acting drew us into her disturbing world, and her voice was outstanding, even in this strong young cast, rich and nuanced, with eloquent phrasing and excellent diction.
This was my first visit to what now bills itself as London's Little Opera House. The benches are not the most comfortable; the room quickly became stuffy. But to see opera this close, at this standard, is a rare treat – what an inspired idea, giving young singers a chance to shine, and audiences an operatic evening out at pocket-money prices.

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

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