It was a full house last night as an audience of everything from grey-topped opera lovers to opportunistic drinkers crammed into the tiny theatre at the back of Islington's King's Head for director Adam Spreadbury-Maher's camped-up ride through Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. And that's the appeal of this irreverent mash-up of an opera historically familiar with rewritings at the hands of the censors: it understands what pub opera is - accessible enough for the non-initiated and inventively new for the devotees.
The cartoon plot exposition opening the show, far from giving the game away (how many audience members at Covent Garden are surprised by the ending of Aida or Tosca anyway?) acts as a neat bridge between the 1859 and 2013 versions. By dispensing early with the business of Verdi's plot, the cast can get on with entertaining their 21st century audience with more freedom.
And that they certainly do. Re-located to the IKEA at Wembley, re-scripted in bawdy modern English and re-timed to two hours, the six-strong team control the small space with a slickness deserving of a bigger stage. Ensemble singing is well-timed and most solo performances are strong. In a sensible modern update Oscar, the female trouser role, is played by a male soprano (Alan Richardson) whose vocal ease is almost eclipsed by his fabulously camp flouncing. His pairing with a thoroughly modernised Ulrica (played superbly by Olivia Barry) suggests a sort of Shakespearean comedy duo, embracing the tradition of the pub venue rather than seeking to transcend it.
Much of the comedy comes from the bathos of distilling Verdi's universal and epic themes of loyalty, friendship and revenge down into the office politics of flat-packing and pay rises. It's the gossip around the office that Tom (Dickon Gough) delights over when Amelia's veil falls, rather than a king's betrayal of his best friend. And yet the 'car park scene' is rescued from farce by the strength of Gough's vocal performance.
The secret of this adaptation is that it doesn't seek to be anything it's not, nor to emulate big budget productions of the same opera. By embracing its limitations with as much affection as it does the original libretto, it succeeds in something much harder than putting on a good Verdi: making opera enjoyable for the next generation of theatre-goers.
The store closes this Sunday so get in quickly.
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