Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****

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Ink

Almeida Theatre, 24th July 2017

Recipe for a very satisfying night at the theatre.

  1. Choose your company. I spend the vast majority of my theatre going life flying solo. So it is such a pleasure to be joined by some choice chums. In this case the SO, the Blonde Bombshells, BUD and KCK. Lovely.
  2. Have a bite to eat beforehand. Now having a “pre-theatre supper”, (I f*****g loathe the concept of “supper” and all who refer to it – it is called dinner), is sailing perilously close to the limits of poncey stuckuppery as far as I am concerned. But I have to say plate of delicious comestibles at that Ottolenghi realy did hit the spot even if the price/volume interplay was very suspect. I may go again. What a toff I have become.
  3. Go to the Almeida Theatre. This is starting to get silly. As far as I can see the Almeida under Rupert Goold has not put a foot wrong in the last four years and is now, in my humble opinion, London’s best theatre. Mr Goold is blessed with Robert Icke as a wingman and can call on just about any stage acting heavyweight he fancies. And he and his team are fortunate to be well oiled by the cash of the professional and chattering classes of Islington. But what has been most impressive for me is the string of new works that have been showcased alongside the classics. As proof I give you Hamlet, Mary Stuart, Oil, They Drink it in the Congo, Richard III, Uncle Vanya, Little Eyof, Medea, Oresteia, Bakkhai, Carmen Disruption, Game, King Charles III. 1984 and American Pyscho. All great and, in many cases, outstanding works of theatre. Even the misfires have had something of value.
  4. Choose your writer, James Graham. Now it looks to me as if Mr Graham has found his groove and is now busy perfecting it. Dramatising relatively recent socio-political events brings recognition to us, the audience, which means we can ruminate on the parallels with the right now, whilst still being thoroughly entertained. Mr Graham just has the knack of picking and writing a good story. That is not as easy as it sounds. In the case of Ink he has gone one stage further than in This House for me by shining a light on the genesis of the populist tabloid, here the Sun, just at the point when maybe, the power of this particular beast is waning. The story of the first year of the Sun, following Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the title in 1969, turns out to be theatrical gold. Murdoch’s desire to take on the British establishment and “give the people what they want”. his relationship with editor Larry Lamb, Lamb’s own personal battle with Daily Mirror editor and mentor Hugh Cudlipp, the pulling together of a team of Fleet Street rejects, waifs and strays to create the new style tabloid, the shocking kidnapping and death of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s lieutenant, the provocation of Page 3: all of this is deftly and pacily explored by Mr Graham in an often acutely amusing way. The motives for recasting journalism and the press in the UK are laid bare: the consequences we know from the intervening decades. Brilliant stuff.
  5. Savour the performances. Unsurprisingly the attention of the critics has focussed on Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch. It’s another bravura performance from an actor who seems to relish “the method” as far as I can see. I thoroughly enjoyed the physicality of his Yank in the Old Vic’s Hairy Ape (which was underrated in my view) and here he captures the awkwardness of Murdoch, his prudishness, his curious accent and his “outsider” psychology perfectly. He is not the caricature demon we “liberal” types need him to be but he is the archetype of “destructive capitalism”. (As an aside I once had a breakfast meeting in Washington. Rupert Murdoch sat down alone on the table next to us. His presence dominated our meeting for the next hour. All he did was eat toast and read the paper but all eyes were on him.) However, if I were Bertie I might have fancied taking on the Lamb role instead. On the other hand Richard Coyle does such a good job there was probably no vacancy. I have seen, and I am sure will see, more virtuoso, scenery chewing, thespianism on stage this year (Lars Erdinger/Greg Hicks in Richard III, Andrew Garfield in Angels in America, Cherry Jones in the Glass Menagerie, Andrew Scott in Hamlet, Brendan Cowell in Life of Galileo, by way of example) but Mr Coyle absolutely nails this from the off. This is a character whose seems compelled to test boundaries. He carries much more of the play than I expected but, even so, this really is an ensemble piece, and that is what makes the “us against the world” dynamic so persuasive.
  6. Take your hat off to Rupert Goold as director. I could be wrong but I reckon that Mr Goold is one of those rare leaders who can control his own ego. What you see on the stage in his productions is what writers, cast, designers and all the other good folk around want to show. I am guessing he guides, he doesn’t dictate. the world needs more leaders like that. My guess is Mr Murdoch would disagree.
  7. Set, Light, Sound, Action.  It is a tabloid in 1969/1970. Activity, headlines, demarcations, flares, eyeliner, dodgy haircuts and dodgy views. You can conjure up a picture in your mind I reckon but what you actually get far surpasses this. Bunny Christie’s set is the antithesis of minimal but so perfectly captures place and time. Some of the movement and dance (yep) is very witty and the scene elucidating the production process is inspired.

All in all a tip, top piece of theatre that I defy anyone not to enjoy. It lifts you up and carries you along from the open and makes you laugh, whilst still getting a little bit vexed about how this instrument of shabby, public discourse could have become so powerful.

So if it were to pop up in a transfer, as so much of the Almeida’s work now does, and you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. A proper story. Popular not populist.

Giacometti at Tate Modern review ****

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Giacometti

Tate Modern, 5th July 2017

Alberto Giacometti fitted the bill of the artist perfectly. Day upon day, month upon month, year upon year ploughing the same furrow. To capture the essence of the human form largely through sculpture and occasionally with paint. More than a nod to the representation of the human form in Ancient Egypt, the Etruscan world and in African culture, with the same relentless elongation. A recognition that, after the horror of WW2, another way of looking at humanity was needed.

A limited number of models (dad, wife, brother, mistress, a few other patrons/luminaries and, for me anyway, himself, indirectly if not directly). And brother and wife looking after all the wordly stuff.

You can see the constant reworking in the works before eventually they could be cast, if required, in bronze. Apparently he was never satisfied. Now for some this might come over as all a bit cliched. But the simple fact is it is impossible not to be drawn into his world. The early p*ssing around with other artistic movements is tossed aside. Thereafter the character of his models, at least in the more substantial busts, becomes clearer and clearer. The structure and basis of human forward movement is revealed in the “walking men”. All through, the “eyes” literally have it. You think you know Giacometti’s work and ideas. But this still pulls you up in places. 

Room 1 kicks things off in style with a host of tightly packed heads of different materials and arranged broadly chronologically. It is easy to see Giacometti’s early experimentation with, for example, cubism but it is even easier to the end to which he was inevitably going to be drawn. Room 2 also shows how he flirted with other more abstract and surrealist solutions to capturing the human form. These works are interesting but not really convincing – the surrealists (a generally bitchy bunch anyway) apparently got on his case for being too naturalistically inclined. Room 3 shows his flair for decoration but it is only in Room 4 that we get a taste of the larger scale works that were to follow. There are some cracking pieces here, some very disturbing if I am honest. Room 5 shows AG’s fascination with the very small scale. In Room 6 we see the “classic” AG forms, in groups, or “penned” in some way. Room 7 brings together 8 of the 9 the Women of Venice series AG created for the 1956 Biennale and they really are fascinating (to me and judging by the stares most of the other punters as well). Rooms 8, 9 and 10 give us paint as well as walkers and the best of the heads of the people he clearly loved. And a film with AG doing his full on artist shtick, little garretty studio (Left Bank – where else?), buckets of espressos, fag dangling, mess all the place, plaster splattered jacket. The works. But his eye connects to the eye of the journo who is acting as his model and voice-over and then you absolutely get what Giacometti was about.

So a terrific exhibition of the work of, for me, a terrific artist. But I am partial as AG for me fulfils in spades two of my favourite artistic traits. The power of repetition. And the gift of emotional connection. Anyway it’s on through to September so see for yourself.

British Watercolour Landscapes at the British Museum review ****

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Places of the Mind: British Watercolour Landscapes 1850 to 1950

British Museum, 3rd July 2017

Any right thinking Londoner or visitor thereto knows that time spent in the British Museum (or the V and A for that matter) is never wasted. I have remarked before on the rich run of larger scale exhibitions that the British Museum has delivered in the last couple of years (The American Dream at the British Museum review ****) and this small but very satisfying collection of watercolours keeps up the tradition.

it does exactly what it says on the packet assembling top draw, and maybe a few lesser names, from its own collections to chart the path from precise Victorian realism to post war abstraction. Watercolour is obviously an immediately attractive medium but this also offers up plenty of technical surprise and interest as well. And there are some records of adventures abroad mixed in with the iconic British locations.

Best of the bunch. Mackintosh. Nash John and Paul. Ravilious, Whistler, Sargeant, Steer, Sutherland, Minton. But honestly I was even captivated by the Pre-Raphaelites who normally make me gag.

So take a trip up to the 4th floor (Room 90) away from the crowds and breathe this in. Cost to you – nothing at all.

And joy of joys on the way in you will see the Leonardo cartoon. And if you have time head up to the Japan galleries (92 to 94)  – always a joy – or down to the Clocks and Watches (38 and 39). Best of all Rooms 40 and 41, pound for pound the best collection of Medieval and earlier European bits and bobs anywhere. Oh except maybe the V and A.

 

The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios review *

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The Philanthropist

Trafalgar Studios One, 6th July

So the Philanthropist has been and gone. A combination of a visit late in the run, the Tourist’s usual dilatoriness and a holiday meant no review until now. Probably just as well. This wasn’t great I have to say.

I think I just have to accept that where others see a sharp wit in the writing of Christopher Hampton I just see a rather tired, dated smartarsery I am afraid. I seem to remember enjoying Les Liaisons Dangereuses (play and film) all those years ago but the recent Donmar revival left me a bit cold. Same thing apples to some of his screenplay adaptions like The History Man and Atonement for example. But one is supposed to admire him so I thought I would give this a whirl.

In other contexts I am also very partial to the cast on show here notably Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal in the magnificent Friday Night Dinner and Matt Berry in his various incarnations (with IT Crowd matching FND as a family favourite chez Tourist). Here though they weren’t really up to the task I fear. Simon Bird did an excellent impression of Simon Bird but that wasn’t really what I think the part required. Matt Berry could have got away with a full on Toast performance here playing an arrogant writer, but was curiously underpowered. Tom Rosenthal was better but his performance along with the character just started to grate. Lily Cole was captivately dreadful. Only Charlotte Ritchie as Mr Bird’s put upon girlfriend really gained the measure of the piece.

A bunch of 70’s academic types and hanger ons moping about and behaving carelessly turned out not to be my cup of tea and the jokes were stilted. I am sure director, the lovely Simon Callow, had an idea of what he wanted but it didn’t seem to get through to his cast. I just didn’t care about any of them and barely laughed.

So a lesson for the tourist. when buying think text first, director second and cast last of all. And do not take a punt on novelties. And stay wary of the Trafalgar Studios which seems wedded to such novelty to pull in the audience (and full price, it ain’t cheap).

It isn’t the worst play the Tourist has seen in the last few years. That accolade goes to Jamie Lloyd’s excruciatingly bad Faustus at the Duke of York’s. I know the idea here was to get a new audience into the theatre by getting Kit Harington to flash his bum at them but we had to walk out of this halfway through.

And talking of walkouts we did the same at the Open Air Theatre’s Tale of Two Cities recently. No review as I only managed the first half but you can check out the proper reviews. Believe them. This is a dog’s breakfast where the laudable concept and over complex staging end up grinding the Dickens’s story into the dust. And whilst I pride myself on being as sweary and as confrontational as the next man the Open Air really isn’t the place to do this when you are asking families to part with their cash for a magical evening’s entertainment.

 

Some forthcoming London theatre ideas

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So we have had a few new season announcements over the past few weeks so here is a wrap up of what I think looks interesting in terms of stuff coming up on various London stages.

To spare you crawling through all this guff here is my top ten, including the best of these recent new season announcements in my view, and some other incumbent recommendations.

  1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. So I know the decent seats are exorbitantly priced and this has come in for a bit of “paddywackery” backlash but it is still a towering play and is a must see.
  2. Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Ditto. This is just a brilliant Hamlet from Andrew Scott and must be seen whatever you view on Will S.
  3. Network at the National Theatre. Should be a cracker – more details below
  4. Macbeth at the Barbican. In Japanese (with surtitles) but this is a classic production which I am very excited about.
  5. I Am Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic. Erin Doherty in the lead in this revival.
  6. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I have a feeling this will be good.
  7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. The next hit from the Almeida?
  8. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. I have banged on about this before but all is in place for the Bridge’s first offer.
  9. Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre. Revival of Terry Johnson brainy classic.
  10. Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre. I think this will be another triumph of discovery at Paul Miller’s Orange Tree.

More detail below.

Young Vic

New season is up. Best of the bunch for me is a revival of I Am Rachel Corrie based on the eponymous activists diaries with Erin Doherty in the lead. I have said before that I think Ms Doherty will become a stage legend and this should support that idea. The Jungle also caught my eye, with a whole bunch of tip-top creatives weaving stories from the Calais refugee camp. This is the sort of thing the Young Vic excels at. I am also looking forward to Wings with Juliet Stevenson in the lead and the Suppliant Women.

Royal Court Theatre

A whole bunch of goodies in the new season with three takes on the impact of war, Minefield, Bad Roads and Goats, and a US transfer, Grimly Handsome which has already sold out. My money is on My Mum’s a Twat a debut play from Anoushka Warden which RC’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone is directing, Girls and Boys, a relationship drama from Dennis Kelly (who writes for the telly) and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and, sounding best of all, Gundog, which has a nice ring of folk horror about it in the blurb. As usual with the RC there is not much to go on but I have a very good feeling about this. Ms Featherstone also directing.

Almeida Theatre

The Almeida can’t put a foot wrong under Rupert Goold with Ink the latest hit (sold out at the Almeida but go see it in the West End Transfer – you won’t regret it). I am booked for all 3 of the new season productions.

Mr Goold himself will direct Albion, Mike Bartlett’s new play. This has “state of the nation” written all over it but Mr Bartlett is a terrific writer so no need to fear. His last outing Wild at the Hampstead was good if not outstanding but this seems to have all the ingredients including a rareish outing for Victoria Hamilton on stage (you will have seen her in numerous period dramas).

Also intriguing is the Twilight Zone a world premiere from Anne Washburn based on, you guessed it, the Twilight Zone TV series from the 60’s. Now I can’t pretend I was bowled over by Ms Washburn’s Mr Burns but you have to admit this sounds quite exciting especially as it will be directed by the reliably controversial opera director Richard Jones.

After all this excitement the last play in the new season is a bit more classical in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke directed by Rebecca Frecknall (who has taken on this relative rarity before at the Southwark Playhouse) and with Patsy Ferran seemingly perfectly cast in the lead.

Donmar Warehouse

There are still a few tickets left for the new version of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea and more for the Knives in Hens revival which should show director Yael Farber in her best light after the tricky Salome at the NT. Knives in Hens is a spare, poetic love triangle that gets regular revivals because, er, it is very, very good.

Old Vic 

Tickets now on sale for The Divide the new dystopian drama from the pen of Alan Ayckbourn. It is in two parts and I have no idea how it will pan out. It will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival so probably worth waiting to see how it is received. It does have my favourite Erin Doherty (see My Name Is Rachel Corrie) above so I have already taken the plunge to get my favourite seats but I might have gone too early.

Arcola Theatre

A slew of interesting stuff in the new season including the Grimeborn opera offerings, but the standout plays for me look like the revivals of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (his new play Prism is also coming up at the Hampstead Theatre) and Howard Barker’s Judith: A Parting from the Body with Catherine Cusack in the lead.

Orange Tree Theatre

Everything in the new season looks interesting to me including productions of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, Elinor Cook’s Out of Love and Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, but I think the UK premiere of Poison by Dutch writer Lot Vekermans may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

National Theatre

I am seeing Angels in America shortly (always seem to end up near the end of the run) so review will follow. Common is still trundling on – I didn’t think it was too bad but others were less forgiving (Common at the National Theatre review ***). No official reviews for Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood which kicked off recently but I am looking forward to this immensely. Unfortunately the run is sold out so queueing on the day is the only way in.

Coming up are Follies, the Sondheim musical with Imelda Staunton belting out the tunes, Oslo, the sold out Broadway transfer which already has a West End transfer, St George and the Dragon, which I would take a punt on as a “modern folk tale” (expect Brexit allusions) written by Rory Mullarkey and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and Beginning, which I am guessing is a relationship drama (I assume with twists) written by David Eldridge and directed by the inestimable Polly Findlay.

My highest hopes are reserved for Network, based on the mid 70s Oscar winning film satire on the media, to be adapted by Lee Hall, directed by Ivo van Hove and with Bryan Cranston in the lead. Now film adaptions and Ivo van Hove disappointed on the last outing (Obsession at the Barbican – Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***) but I still would take the risk. This isn’t going to work if it follows the minimal, psychological insight route so I am assuming it will look more like Mr van Hove’s relentlessly busy Shakespearean efforts. There are tickets left for later in the run.

Barbican Theatres

Mr van Hove will also be bringing his Tonnelgroep Amsterdam team to the Barbican for After the Rehearsal/Persona and the main theatre will also show all the RSC Roman Shakespeares transferring from Stratford. I am signed up for the marathon Smile On Us Lord (I hope he/she does) from Russia’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre though I recognise this might be a bit hardcore for most. I do think the Ninagawa company’s Macbeth will be worth the £50 though. This is a revival was the production that first brought this innovative visual feast to the “West” so it really is a “once in a lifetime” theatrical experience.

 

Salome at the National Theatre ***

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Salome

National Theatre, 5th July 2017

Salome, much like Common also currently residing on the Olivier stage, has been given a bit of a pasting by the criterati. Not utterly trashed but its obvious flaws have been highlighted. And much like Common I have to say I think the criticism is a little misplaced (Common at the National Theatre review ***.

The text is ponderous, with a strange mix of bombastic Biblicality, overwrought imagery and sometimes vague, paradoxical didacticism but the themes are still revealed and once you adjust to the style and pacing it exerts a sort of spell. Yael Farber has directed some cracking theatre, not least the NT’s Les Blancs on this very stage last year. She is not afraid of bashing you over the head with the messages she whats to convey and is the antithesis of theatrical reserve. Having set out to direct Wilde’s version of the Salome “story” she found that the truth of that “story” had been revised, reviled and distorted at the hands of the unholy trinity of history, religion and patriarchy. So, following a bout of impressive scholarship, she set out to write her own version.

Nameless (our Salome in her dotage), played with sonorous venom by Olwen Fouere, acts as our “narrator” as we are introduced to Judea c. AD 26. Cue flashback. Pontius Pilate is whinging about getting the gig here, the Pharisees are getting all orthodox and hanging on to their cash. Herod (there were a few of them) is swanning about as vassals do and getting all lathered up about his niece who may be Salome. John the Baptist pitches up, berating everyone in Aramaic (I assume) for being insufficiently hairshirt. Authorities decide to lock him up rather than crucify to stop the hoi-polloi turning nasty. Dance, head, plate, end. But the crafty Salome/Nameless and John B have outwitted the Roman occupier for martyrdom and revolt are the consequence.

Ms Farber, through the shouty stuff, shows that the whole Salome myth was laid on top in subsequent centuries and gives a flavour of these fervent times when monotheistic religions was developing. And it looks and sounds spectacular courtesy of Susan Hilferty and Adam Cork respectively. Renaissance art comes to life. I know that set, sound, movement. lighting, costume and other visual flummery is not enough on its own to justify a trip to the theatre but this comes mighty close. The singing of Yasmin Levy and Lubana Al Quntar was spell-binding. And the multi- nationality cast largely gives a full-throated bash at delivering even the most pretentious twaddle. In particular I was taken with Lloyd Hutchinson’s Pilate, the aforementioned Olwen Fouere, and especially Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan (the Baptist to you and me). 

So yes it is all a bit elliptical, it is trying too hard to be good for you and the text is undeniably orotund (I bloody love that word) but it has a hazy, mystical quality which I think suits the “action” such as it is. Myth and ritual are central to any conception of art and the ideas here do eventually penetrate the fog, particularly the tragedy of occupation and the masculinisation of history through the metaphor of the female body. So I say good on ya, Yael and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

 

 

Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Gloria

Hampstead Theatre, 4th July 2017

Right. This might actually be a review of, albeit dubious, utility. There are 3 weeks or so left on the run and there are  a fair few tickets left. And this is a fine piece of theatre with an interesting premise, formal innovation, enough material to cogitate on but not so taxing as to ruin your night out, and all in the convivial and convenient location that is the Hampstead Theatre.

The proper reviews give you a realistic flavour, though I think they maybe oversell the “frustrated millenials in workplace” drama that characterises the first half, and undersell the sharpness of the satire on “ownership of stories in today’s world of commoditised fake empathy” that drives the second half.

On the face of it this is a very different play from flavour of the month Branden Jacobs-Jenkins last London outing, An Octoroon at the Orange Tree (review here An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****). That play was a dissertation on the notion of identity in the theatre using the guts of C19 playwright’s Dion Boucicault’s “slavery” melodrama, The Octoroon. Very clever, very entertaining. Gloria is also clever and entertaining but in a more subtle way (one coup de theatre aside). Moreover it also riffs on the ownership of narratives which for me is something theatre is uniquely able to address.

The first half is set in an NYC magazine publishing house where three put-upon late 20s assistants bemoan their lot with a mixture of anger, humour and resignation. Kae Alexander plays Kendra, an entitled Asian-American princess who is long on railing against the iniquity of the thwarted career opportunities for her generation, but short on any work ethic that might help to change this. Ellie Kendrick (last seem by me out-Oscaring all those Hollywood chumps in the brilliant film The Levelling, which cost about the same as one Oscar night table of goodie bags to make) plays Ani, whose outward show of sweetness and light likely masks a more ruthless streak. Colin Morgan (you know Merlin in a former life) plays Dean, just turned 30 and still lapdog to unseen editor Nan. They are joined by the seemingly ineffectual intern Miles (Bayo Gbadamosi), and visited by the eponymous frustrated office lifer Gloria (Sian Clifford) and stressed fact checker Lorin.

The detail of the frustrations that each of these characters face is well observed (BJJ spent a few years at Vanity Fair) and pretty funny. This first half does get close to outstaying its welcome but BJJ has a cunning and surprising trick up his sleeve to bridge us into the second half. I will leave the description there: suffice to say that the second half explores its chosen themes with the same economy and insight as the first. I see some of the criterati don’t recognise the office workplace on show here: I think that says more about them than it will about you (assuming you are not some ancient has-been like me and the other educated pensioner types who are always getting in the way of the more worthy younger punters in the quality London theatres).

In contrast to An Octoroon this play is not chock full of meta devices and playful alienating effects. It is, broadly, a naturalistic structure but the use of doubling for “new” characters in the second half, whilst hardly revolutionary, works well, at least for me. I can’t wait to see more of BJJ’s plays over here. and, given the reception afforded to this and An Octoroon, these should not be too long in coming. And best of all when asked in the programme interview who his favourite playwright is, he answered Caryl Churchill. What an astute young(ish) man.

I am dubious about filling a cast up with young names off the telly even if it does offer the prospect of better economics for producers/artistic directors. Here however it worked a treat. The entire cast was faultless but our three millenials shone. Michael Longhurst is blessed with the ability to perfectly pace any play he directs and Lizzie Clachan turned in another set which which offered an elegant solution to functional necessity. It is possible to make a vernacular theatrical settings elegant, but I bet it’s not easy.

So if I were you I would give this a whirl. Worst case you get to here a bit of JS Bach (a slightly different take on Gloria).