An upright, natural trumpet stands alone on the stage. Samuel Adamson's brand new play starts with a eulogy to this "natural" instrument, which provides an aural and a thematic link to the various playlets and snatches of opera which make up the entertainment.
We are in the 1690s, the flowering of the Baroque, in "noisily Protestant" England. The action switches from the Royal Court – Charlotte Mills as Queen Mary and Joshua James as the tragic, doomed Prince William – to the river and its boatmen – to the world of the theatre. Larger than life actor/manager Betterton [Pip Donaghy] and the penny-pinching theatre owner Christopher Rich [Jason Baughan]. Of course we know little more about the theatrical life of the age than we do about Shakespeare's world, but this genial company certainly have fun guessing. Visually, it has the look of The Beggar's Opera, a generation later.
Much of the best writing comes in the monologues – a priceless waterman from Sam Cox, reminiscing about the famous fares he's ferried across the Thames, and about the Jacobean golden age, when "every day three trumpet calls from the theatres on the Bankside, then songs would float over the thatch and roll across the water and make my work sweet", Jessie Buckley's Arabella, and James Garnon's cutpurse critic – "English Opera – there's an oxymoron". Garnon has another more sombre soliloquy as the Husband whose wife has just lost another daughter in childbirth, as Queen Mary lies dying. Her funeral music never better deployed.
And it is the music which is the chief glory of Dominic Dromgoole's lavish production. The English Concert, on their little musicians' dais stage right, William Purefoy, and Miss Buckley, who proves a more than decent singer. And of course Alison Balsom, who had the original idea, apparently, effortlessly coaxing sweet sounds from that natural trumpet – Purcell [Sound the Trumpet duetting with Purefoy's alto], and Handel's Eternal Source of Light Divine. Plus generous helping's of The Faerie Queen, prompting some clever borrowing of Shakespeare's Dream in the dialogue.