West End Girl
In a West End town, a dead end world...
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No, not a sequel to Closer To Heaven (aka The Pet Shop Boys: The
Musical) this is a new version of Puccini’s 1910 opera, La Fanciulla
del West. But you knew that already, obviously.
West End Girl is the latest production from the leading exponents of
fringe opera, OperaUpClose.
Co-librettists Robert Chevara (who is also on directing duty) and Kfir
Yefet (who has form in this area, having directed Gillian Anderson in
the Donmar’s reimagining of A Doll’s House a few years ago) transpose
the action from the Californian gold rush to present day London.
Instead of the original’s rough-hewn prospectors and sheriffs, Chevara
and Yefet give us the seedy world of Eastern European criminals and a
love affair between Minnie, owner of a Soho internet café and Albanian
gang leader ‘Vik’ Johnson.
The new libretto reduces the cast size to six (with two actors cast in
each role) and reorchestrates the score for piano and violin, a good
match for the immediacy of Chevara and Yefet’s writing. Gone are the
supernumerary miners and Native American servants; the writing here is
direct and to the point, littered with contemporary cultural and
geographical references. It is opera demystified – and this is
OperaUpClose’s big selling point. A Puccini opera in a tiny space –
the grand orchestral flourish squeezed into a pub theatre.
Chevara’s production tips its hat to the epic. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s
versatile design is detailed and dingy, moving from internet café to
Minnie’s bedroom (complete with The Phantom of the Opera in-joke –
Andrew Lloyd Webber settled out of court after ‘borrowing’ a melody
from Puccini) to a desolate warehouse, while Jonathan Lipman’s
costumes show the same down at heel detail.
Laura Parfitt, singing Minnie on press night, has big shoes to fill as
one of Puccini’s most complex heroines, but she has the acting chops
to back up a strong soprano – in her hands Minnie is not just a hard
as nails survivor, but shows a vulnerable, girlish side, excelling
particularly in the second act. Tom Stoddart, as rival Jack Rock, has
a lean and hungry look with a thrilling, threatening baritone but
while Ben Thapa sings Johnson beautifully, he looks uneasy on stage,
lacking the requisite emotional connection with Minnie. In this
intimate setting everything is exposed and there is little sexual heat
or tension between the pair.
At times the actors’ diction isn’t quite sharp enough and clarity of
storytelling is lost but there is no denying the emotional impact of
opera on this scale. The production values are every bit as ambitious
as their established major revivals and Parfitt and Stoddart are names
to watch. The West End girls (and guys) may have a fight on their
Words: Dan Usztan
West End Girl is at the King’s Head, London until 3 March.