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Highbury Opera Theatre presents: The Weekend – Bloomsbury Theatre

There’s a level of sarcastic wit in The Weekend that is embodied through Stephen Febble (Adrian Thompson), though as this is an opera, it comes across largely as bitterness and despair instead: some relatives he doesn’t particularly get on well with are coming over for the weekend. It’s not even Christmas Day or a significant family milestone being celebrated. Indeed, it’s not made entirely clear, at least not to me, what the occasion is, other than that the diaries of miscellaneous friends and family of Stephen’s wife Virginia (Kathy Taylor-Jones) happen to have a clear slot on the same evening, so they’re all coming together.

The WeekendAn opera in one act is merciful to the audience, who could have been subjected to a performance at least twice as long as the eighty-five minutes taken to weave its way through the narrative. A rather more explosive response from Stephen would have been more convincing at the start of the show, when it is revealed in the first place that various undesirable people would be gracing him with their presence. That said, it would also leave the main character, emotionally speaking, with nowhere to go once the initial irritation turns to teeth-gritting and getting through proceedings, and in the end, the show builds to a suitably turbulent crescendo when Stephen doesn’t hold back on his true opinions.

A twenty-five strong chorus provides much exposition, which is helpful in a show set entirely in the front room on the Febbles’ house on a weekend in the summer. The show is set in Suffolk, and thus what constitutes ‘summer’ in England is open to interpretation, though as nobody mentions anything about rain, it can be reasonably assumed it’s dry outside. The music is near-continuous, often with a quick-paced jazz score, even when the lyrics are being sung at a completely different pace. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but marks for consistency in a show that would be very dark indeed if it weren’t for the jolly compositions.

Just about enough of the characters is revealed to get to know them, but the opera does tend to steer towards stereotypes. Stephen and Virginia’s son in law Alan (Robert Gildon) waxes lyrical about the precise route taken to drive from his house to theirs, while their granddaughter Charlotte (Rachel Maby) is, it would seem, best contacted via Instagram. Then there’s the Febble’s daughter, Diana (Joanna Harries), plus a friend of Stephen’s, Duff Gardner (Tom Poldre), who along with his wife Bridget (Donna Canale) has also brought along Hugh Bedales (Cleveland Watkiss MBE), a Harley Street doctor with who flashes his success in ways that Stephen simply cannot abide.

Thompson’s Stephen Febble has a very strong stage presence, and there are no weak links to report in a tight cast tasked with what turns out to be a busy narrative with various subplots, including what would appear to be under the table dealings at local government level, extramarital relationships and the ‘real’ reason why Bridget has had consultations with Bedales. There’s a sentimental scene (but hardly overkill, at least not by opera standards) in which Stephen confesses a past incident that explains much of his current outlook on life. If only a similar amount of character development were afforded to one or two others.

Possibly half a dozen sofas or so are dotted around the stage (was there a good deal on somewhere?). While I’ve no idea quite why someone was in a dinosaur costume on stage pre-show, this production is an intriguing operatic insight into family dynamics in the modern world. Perhaps inadvertently, it also demonstrates that some gatherings are better off taking place on Zoom after all.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

At the centre of this very British comedy sits Stephen Febble, misanthrope extraordinaire who wants, more than anything, to have a quiet weekend to himself at home. Instead, he gets a visit from his needy daughter, complete with boorish husband, frenetic child and a badly trained dog. With tempers already frayed and trips to the drinks cabinet becoming more frequent, Stephen gets the news he’s most been dreading: it’s their turn to host the village cocktail party. Will the grumbling retiree ever get the peace and quiet he’s looking for? The Weekend draws on the long tradition of British family dramas onstage, delivering a sharp-eyed, Ayckbournian take on tense family dynamics and social expectations.

Company information
Music by Scott Stroman
Libretto by Tamsin Collison
Directed by John Ramster
Assistant music direction by Sarah Wilkinson
Orchestra led by Lucy Waterhouse
Produced by Greg Klerkx

Cast
Adrian Thompson
Kathy Taylor-Jones
Joanna Harries
Rob Gildon
Cleveland Watkiss
Rachel Maby

Listings information
25 – 27 September 2021
Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon Street, London, WC1H 0AH
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/bloomsbury-theatre-studio

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