music by Edward German libretto by Basil Hood.
Finborough Theatre above The Finborough Wine Café 118 Finborough Road SW10 9ED To 12 June 2012.
Sun-Mon 7.30pm Mat Tue 2pm.
Runs 2hr 5min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 847 1652 (24hr no booking fee).
Review: Timothy Ramsden 29 April.
Even light fare deserves more serious consideration.
Taking liberties with a well-known piece is one thing – at least some people know what liberties are being taken. But to pick-up a piece not seen (professionally) for a good half-century then muck it about provokes the kind of response William Russell gives in his review.
Merrie England’s music, while good, isn’t quite as top-drawer as Sullivan, while Basil Hood’s libretto falls flat beside anything by Gilbert. At best his persistent puns come close to Shakespearean quality – but verbal humour wasn’t Shakespeare’s strongest suit.
There’s still plenty to enjoy. Written in 1902, the piece reassured at an unsettled time for Britain, just after the long reign of one queen, looking back to a picture-postcard view of an extremely unsettled, if brilliant, period under another long-reigning queen. And in Diamond Jubilee year, even after some nasal female singing and pointless camping around in the background, the curtain-call reprise of ‘Long Live Elizabeth’ is moving. (The times remained fairly troubled.)
More moving than when the song first appears. A single keyboard (however well-played) and a tiny theatre diminish the story’s grander side, where German’s score really flourishes, in ‘The Yeomen of England’ shortly followed by the chorus welcoming the queen with ‘Long Live Elizabeth’ and her response ‘O peaceful England’.
Elizabeth’s appearance is one of the stronger moments of Alex Sutton’s production. But it’s soon undermined by Virge Gilchrist’s impatient silencing of the greeting chorus (admittedly in the central section where the singers lose the melody to what should be a sweep of strings), then being forced to sit at the side on a wall.
Stronger elements include Nichola Jolley’s Jill-All-Alone, making good use of a puppet cat, for owning which she’s thought a witch (she is northern as well), Daniel Cane’s handling of the comedy of cowardly Walter Wilkins, Shakespeare’s acting Fool, and among the lighter numbers the lively handling of the bright yet shrewd ‘When Cupid First This old World Trod’.
Merrie England is a dream of England, a pastoral-unhistorical. Its stronger elements deserve a chance on a larger stage with a production showing more confidence in the show’s qualities.
Abigail/Page 2: Ruth Leavesley.
Pol/Queen’s Fool: Rachel Holbrook.
Kate: Jody Ellen Robinson.
Daisy/Page 1: Sammy Andrews.
Big Ben: Stuart Hickey.
A Butcher: Alexander Beck.
A Baker: Luke Courtier.
A Tinker: Rhys Saunders.
A Tailor: Brendan Matthew.
May Queen: Jamie Birkett.
Long Tom: Christopher Killik.
Jill-All-Alone: Nichola Jolley.
Walter Wilkins: Daniel Cane.
Silas Simkins: Tom Giles.
Sir Walter Raleigh: Michael Riseley.
Bessie Throckmorton: Gemma Sandzer.
Earl of Essex: Stephen Darcy.
Queen Elizabeth I: Virge Gilchrist.
Director/Choreographer: Alex Sutton.
Designer: Philip Lindley.
Lighting: Miguel Vicente.
Musical Director: Eamonn O’Dwyer.
Costume: Sophia Anastasiou.