A very enjoyable evening. I almost booked when I first saw cheap seats but reviews were mixed. Then I got a bargain seat on a miserable Bank Holiday Monday – I’ve never seen the West End so deserted – and I’m glad I did. The cast are excellent but far too old for the play, so Simon Brett has added some material about the annual production by the Bunbury Players. Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers reprieve the parts they played at the National Theatre in 1982. Add Sian Phillips, Cherie Lunghi and Rosalind Ayres and it’s quite a cast. Once they get down to the play itself, they are perfect and you quickly forget their ages and the audience, me included, was soon laughing away. It’s hardly surprising that the additional material does not match the brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s but I think they could have worked on it a bit harder. The extension of the cucumber sandwich humour was perfect but we could have done without the cheap ladder joke. The second half drops the framework; it’s pure Wilde and pure joy. I think I enjoyed it almost as much as the actors clearly loved acting it.
I love opera on this scale, in a small, packed theatre with just five singers and three musicians so that you hear every note and every word clearly. The smaller scale doesn’t mean it’s easier for the singers, in some ways quite the reverse, particularly as it places much greater pressure on the singers to act naturally despite singing their heads off. I’m glad to say Louisa Tee as Violetta and Philip Lee as Alfredo both acted as excellently as they sang and Andrew Mayor as Alfredo’s father was also very good. The action was moved forward to the 1920s with a new English libretto by Robin Norton-Hale. The plot was necessarily simplified with basic scene changes but these were easily outweighed by the overall quality of the production, as shown by the massive applause at the end. It is deservedly selling out fast and casting changes each night so you might not get to see the same line-up as I did, but this is the third production by them that I’ve seen and I’ve never been disappointed. If you like opera in English, it’s also worth noting that, unlike the ENO at the Coliseum, the Soho Theatre has excellent air conditioning and plenty of knee room!