Dostoevsky’s allegorical short story The Crocodile may be obscure and confusing, but that is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the opera. It is a theatrical assault on the senses of strobe lighting, silly string, political diatribe and musical dissonance, and to try to make sense of it only makes the head ache more.
Essentially the story is as follows: It is the approaching the end of the 19thcentury and Philip, a mad professor type at the University of St Petersburg, is preparing the spectacle of the decade; he will present to the Russian cognoscenti – a crocodile! When his politically progressive friend Ivan is eaten by the beast it seems the great event is doomed – and how will they explain the situation to Ivan’s wife, Elana? However it transpires that Ivan is alive and quite comfortable inside the creature’s belly, and the arguments begin; to kill, or not to kill the crocodile? The couple’s German owners are unsurprisingly opposed to the slaughter, until it occurs to them to ask for a large ransom which Elana and Ivan are quite unable to pay. Ignaty, a bureaucrat, is also against it on the grounds that the crocodile is the property of a foreign entrepreneur and Russia is greatly in need of foreign investments. Elana is horrified until it transpires that Ivan, despite his progressive views is in agreement with the capitalist and is quite happy to remain where he is, claiming that from the belly of the beast he will be able to devise “a perfect millennium for mankind”. Cue silly string, balloons and glitter, all over both cast and audience. The whole thing is terminated with a weird, sinister piece of ballet.
The entirety of this demented plot is performed in song; a bewildering, clanging mish-mash of classical opera, cool jazz and tango. The singing was generally good, although there were a few sound problems rendering some of the more important political speeches quite inaudible. The cast was very strong, particularly Kris Belligh as the well-meaning and panicky professor and Graham Neal as the smug, intellectually superior idealist Ivan. James Sollar and Jane Webster were entertaining as the steam-punk Germans. The crocodile, a vast, sinuous puppet ably managed by Caroline Mathias was very effective. The great thing was that they all seemed to be having a simply marvellous time, and very sensibly not taking the play seriously at all. The incongruity of a lengthy political diatribe delivered in the style of beat poetry by a man in a velvet smoking jacket was revelled in by all. At one point the whole cast of grotesques joined together in a dance that was part Thriller, part Rocky Horror, and entirely fantastic. The set was sumptuous, if slightly wobbly and the lighting – including the terrifying strobe crocodile-attack scenes – very effective.
If you go to see The Crocodile hoping for an operatic analysis of historical Russian economics then you will be very disappointed. What political speeches there are find themselves suffocated in the deliberate surrealism of the set, action and music. However as Dostoevsky himself said of his story, ‘It was a literary piece of mischief simply for the laughs.’ The cast and crew clearly understand this and have created a fabulous piece of nonsense which is entertaining, if nothing else.
Review by Genni Trickett
Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, London W6 9RL
Thursday, 15 August and Friday, 16 August at 20.50
Shows lasts 1 hour 15 minutes
Tickets: £7.50/£5 concessions
Box Office: 0209 7237 1111
Or book online at www.riversidestudios.co.uk
Friday 16th August 2013