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Bohemian Life In Scarborough
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
Philip Lee (Rodolfo) and Elinor Jane Moran ( Mimi)
The SJT’s famous round had been squared off to accommodate this re-imagining of Puccini’s La Bohème, by OperaUpClose, on their tenth anniversary tour, reviving their 2009 production which had taken an Olivier Award. That is our first surprise.

Some might think that Director Robin Norton-Hale’s English libretto is aggressively modernising, others that it is splendidly intimate, demotic and down-to-earth. Certainly it has its fair share of uncouth words and manages to work in gratuitous references to Strictly, Jamie Oliver and diverse popular tokens of our tawdry times. At times, the ten-year-old text might even have dated. Do people still talk about Chavs?

The audience found all this hugely amusing and when that is the case we must find merit.

To be adversely critical, for one moment, however, it has to be said that much of the original story, based on Henri Murger's novel, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, about the struggles, joys and heartbreaks of young bohemians in the Latin Quarter of 1840's Paris, makes much less sense when transferred to modern-day Shoreditch.

For all its perceived shortcomings the NHS, for example, exists to prevent the Mimis of this world dying of tuberculosis. When an ambulance is at last called for we cannot help questioning the whole premise.

To accept this takes a leap of faith, especially at the time one is struggling to come to terms with the loss of Puccini’s lush orchestral score, replaced by the piano of the hard-working Musical Director, Elspeth Wilkes. Suffice it to say that is the given and we quickly come to accept it and warm to the young and enthusiastic cast, their energy and verve.

It’s Christmas Eve and Rodolfo, a penniless writer, in fine tenor as sung by Philip Lee, and flatmate Marcello, the equally unsuccessful artist, given a pleasing baritone by Nicolas Dwyer, are reduced to burning pages of manuscript to keep warm. Schaunard (Alistair Sutherland) and Colline (Julian Debreuil) enter to gustily deliver a mock ode to the lost masterpiece and join in the strained attempts at keeping up the spirits.

When, as seems natural, they all repair to the pub, Rodolfo stays behind to ‘knock out’ a thousand words on his laptop for a website. The neighbour who drops in is, of course, Mimi, sung by the delightful Polish-American soprano, Pamela Hay.

Barely able to earn enough as a cleaner to keep herself alive, she is sweet natured and utterly beautiful in that appealingly vulnerable way. It does not take long for Rodolfo to be calling her his artistic inspiration. Yet as much as we expect romance to ensue, her frozen fingers and hacking cough do not augur well.

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The famous Café Momus scene is actually acted out playfully in the bosom of the audience with the blowsy Musetta (Emil-Jane Thomas) and her elderly admirer Alcindoro (Martin Nelson) moving, not without difficulty, along the aisles, engaging with those whose feet they just about avoid trampling on. It’s a wittily contrived chaos, all very 'immersive', as the fashionable critic might say, and it all ends as a great laugh with our champagne-swilling bohemians saddling the old sugar daddy with the bill.

This second half of Puccini’s masterpiece, however, is a dark, brooding affair as everyone knows, with Rudolfo absurdly jealous of Mimi’s attraction to others at the same time as her health is getting worse. The young free-living, free-loving bohemians have aged drastically, grappling with poverty, domestic discord and seemingly intent on displaying their fatal flaws, foreshadowing the descent to tragedy.

We know there can only be one outcome but by now we are indeed held in the grip of great musical drama, caught up in the beauty of the score, the fleeting joys and false hopes of the characters and the overall pathos.

OperaUpClose must be praised for bringing their art form as close to the audience as is humanly possible. If this opera has been been stripped down, it has also been pumped up. Robin Norton-Hale, co-founder of the company, has a triumph on her hands.

Puccini's La Bohème continues tonight, Saturday, 9th March, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Bohemian Life In Scarborough, 9th March 2019, 10:53 AM