Actors Get Drunk, Romeo Snores, Rossini in Pub: London Stage

Nino Machaidze as Juliette and Piotr Beczala as Romeo in "Romeo et Juliette" by Gounod in a production by Nicolas Joel at the Royal Opera House. The action is set in the 14th century. Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

An ensemble of U.K. comic actors, several of them national treasures, are starring in a West End play with a great hook for its central idea. What could possibly go wrong?

At the beginning, plenty goes right. J.B. Priestley’s 1938 comedy “When We Are Married” shows what happens when three stout respectable couples in Edwardian Yorkshire discover that, due to a bureaucratic accident, they aren’t in fact married.

The bombshell proves to be as liberating as terrifying. Henpecked Herbert Soppitt (Sam Kelly) finally stands up to his violent harridan of a spouse (Maureen Lipman). “I would never raise a hand to my wife,” he says dutifully. After a well-timed pause, he adds, “Since you’re not my wife, though...” and gets his revenge on her.

The women dread being exposed, and the men fear for their standing in the community. Pomposity is pricked and vanity exposed in traditional comic fashion.

Then the playwright’s nerve seems to fail. He doesn’t grapple with property, or division of money, or illegitimacy, or any of the things which could give the situation real comedic weight. This is gentle, toothless stuff. It’s a creaky piece of plotting, too, that the ingenue couple who are initially crucial to the central revelation are forgotten about by the end.

Stingy Albert

Still, it’s a pleasure to see a superb cast go through their paces (directed by Christopher Luscombe) on Simon Higlett’s hyper realistic Edwardian set.

Watching the draconian Lipman trying to sit down at the command of her newly authoritative husband, her rebellious instincts battling with her prudence, is worth the price of the ticket.

Simon Rouse brings an impressive roundedness to the pompous and stingy Albert Parker. Susie Blake and Michele Dotrice are delightful as the other wives.

Roy Hudd is the disheveled and tipsy photographer Henry Ormonroyd, and he shows how drunk-acting -- a form of stage business usually so tiresome -- should be done.

If there are plenty of better plays in the West End, there aren’t many better ensembles.

Rating: ***.

Pub Crawl

Last year a highly enjoyable contemporary version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” was staged in a pub with a piano by Robin Norton-Hale for Opera Up Close.

Now the low-budget company has found a home in London’s “newest opera house,” the King’s Head pub theater in north London.

The season opens with Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” Norton-Hale, who has wittily translated the libretto and who also directs, sets the action in Regency England. There are good period costumes, and a simple multipurpose set.

Rossini proves a tougher nut to crack than Puccini, and a lot of the comic business (unwitnessed asides, offended dignity, double takes and the like) could benefit from more accuracy and better timing.

The young singers all have good things to offer, mixed with some not-so-good things.

It’s genial stuff, however, and in a period when fledgling opera performers and directors need all the help they can get to learn their craft, the project should be welcomed with shouts of joy.

Rating: **.

Parking and Barking

Shouts of joy are certainly not going to greet the Royal Opera’s four-hour “Romeo et Juliette.” Groans of despair, perhaps, or snores.

Nicolas Joel’s production of Gounod’s 1867 work manages to combine elements of the worst kind of traditional opera stagings. The chorus shuffles on, stands still, and shuffles off. The blocking for the principals is of the park-and-bark variety. The moveable Renaissance walls, arches and steps which comprise Carlo Tommasi’s set are shoddy and badly lit. The period costumes make the men look like court jesters.

Tenor Piotr Beczala rises above it all with a soaring, sweet-toned account of Romeo, and the singing of Alfie Boe (Tybalt) and Stephane Degout (Mercutio) falls pleasantly on the ear. The chorus sounds good too. Since they don’t have to think about acting, that’s not surprising.

Juliette (Nino Machaidze) has a hard and squally edge to her voice, and conductor Daniel Oren’s mind often seems to be elsewhere. Given what’s in front of him, that’s not surprising either. Rating: *.

“When We Are Married” is at London’s Garrick Theatre. Information: or +44-844-412-4662.

“The Barber of Seville (Or Salisbury)” is at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, through Nov. 14. See or call +44-8444-771-000.

“Romeo et Juliette” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera House through Nov. 17. Go to or call +44-20-7304-4000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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