Monday 4 July 2016

Stephen McNeff, Banished, Trinity Laban, 30 June 2016

Blackheath Halls

Sarah – Rebekah Smith
Pitty – Lucy Bray
Winnie – Kate Huntley
Nance – Susanna Buckle
Charlotte – Rebecca Leggett
Madge – Emily Gray
Captain – Laurence Panter
Surgeon – Caspar Lloyd James
Sarge – Tom McKenna
Tommy – Lars Fischer

Elaine Kidd (director)
Louise Whitemore (designs)
Ben Ormerod (lighting)

Vocal Ensemble
Orchestra of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Jessica Cottis (conductor)

Images: Lidia Crisafulli
Much of the best opera in London takes place at our conservatoires. Their end-of-term shows often put starrier venues to shame, whether in ‘standard’ or more unusual repertoire. Trinity Laban has here, quite rightly, offered students the opportunity to participate in an entirely new work. I was unable to attend the world premiere, but instead went to the second night, and found committed, convincing performances from all concerned – just as I always do.

Stephen McNeff’s Banished, an adaptation of Steve Gooch’s play, Female Transport, to a libretto by Olivia Fuchs, tells the story of women who, in the words of Trinity Laban’s Linda Hirst, ‘are all individuals with strong and earthy characters,’ during their transportation to Australia. ‘They live on the ship (together with the four men: Captain, Sarge, Surgeon and Tommy) for months, through the ups and downs of the sea. They don’t all die as in other operas for women, and they retain a basic sexuality and a sharp sense of humour.’ If some of those claims are somewhat exaggerated, the opportunity, in McNeff’s own words, to take part in an opera with ‘challenging roles available for young women (indeed for all young women)’ is a real one and heartily to be commended. It is certainly not the case that the male characters get a raw deal, but the story is ultimately that of the women we encounter, and rightly so.

The opera does its job, even if, especially without surtitles, it is not always possible to hear the vocal lines – and thus properly to disentangle the stories. Perhaps there are too many stories being told, but if so, that is a fault on the right side, and the variety of experience is clearly part of the point. What I missed in the work itself was a sense of distancing or of questioning; dramaturgically, it comes across as not so very different from a telescoped version of a somewhat old-fashioned television series, or a musical. But perhaps that is my problem. On the other hand, some of the characters are strongly drawn – certainly not something to be taken for granted. The romantic relationship between the ship’s newest recruit, Tommy, and Sarah is plausible in its development, without overshadowing the other stories, and without sentimentalising. Tensions between crew and captives, and within those groups, are skilfully explored. McNeff’s score offers a good sense of atmosphere, with stronger and weaker allusions to the period of transportation, whilst remaining itself. The organisation into fifteen short scenes works well, and different scenes often tend towards display of their own musical characters. Crucially, for a project such as this, vocal parts are both singable and challenging.

It is the performances, splendidly directed by Elaine Kidd (costumes, make-up, and lighting deserve particular mention here) and conducted by Jessica Cottis, which deserve our loudest cheer. Whether amongst the ‘soloists’ or the twelve-strong additional female vocal ensemble, there was nothing to which anyone might reasonably object, and much to praise. (I was delighted to see a couple of my former students from Royal Holloway, Charlotte Levesley and Charlotte Osborn, in the ensemble, and sad to have missed out on another, Hilary Cronin, who was to sing the role of Nance in a later performance. Performances that particularly struck me came from Rebekah Smith and Lars Fischer (as the aforementioned pair), Rebecca Leggett, and Lucy Bray, but there were no weak links, and a fine sense of company amongst all. Similarly, the orchestra seemed to me on excellent form, rhythmically alert, with a fine sense not only of balance but forward propulsion imparted by Cottis.