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Wilton's Music Hall - review

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 18:30 UK time, Thursday, 12 February 2009

wiltons.jpgJohn Blow's Venus and Adonis is a masque - a sort of entertainment designed either to be contained within another, or interspersed with dance or straight song. The current production at Wilton's Music Hall precedes it with a dozen numbers by Purcell.

These have been set in a modern-day cafe, the revolving diners taking it in turns to sit and sing from table No1 where a video camera hides behind the Valentine's Day carnation. This is not for the singer but his or her partner who mimes generally comic reactions. The images are projected on to video screens above the stage. It is all a bit much. They rob the songs of any genuine emotion the singer is trying to build up and turn everything into a clever joke. Tenor Kevin Kyle sings his runs in Love Thou Canst Hear quite impressively but must do so against the audience's twittering at his soprano's eye movements as she acted bored, poor fellow. It was like a Morecambe-and-Wise sketch. The technology could have been put to much better use by showing us the texts. It was much too dark to see them on the song sheet provided and in any case you want to watch the stage. One ceased to look at them at all after a while as one became aware that there were a lot of good voices in the company. I am pretty sure it was soprano Katherine Manley who sang Oh Solitude but as the singers had rotated and all the girls dressed to look the same, I may be wrong. She sang Purcell's long and twisting phrases with delicious restraint, making much of the poet Katherine Phillips' powerful words. The video became irrelevant. Lutenist Linda Sayce might have played through the cadences of cellist Tim Smedley's churning ground bass a little more but the band of solo strings and harpsichord performed their pleading Baroque gestures with a scintillating lightness throughout.

Manley is stunning after the interval as Venus in Blow's masque. Her long, heart-rending, chromatic 'Aah' at the end knew such grief as is worth travelling to the East End for. Even she was surprised at the audience roar which greeted her curtain call. Her Adonis, baritone Dawid Kimberg, sings with mellifluous tone but lacks heroic allure. The production, which extends the first half's latterday setting, does not help him, bent as it is on making his stockbroker type ridiculous. Why are British companies so frightened of aiming to convey real pathos?

On the other hand the cast performs with youthful sensuality in both their singing and dancing. The silhouette play is well done and no more than the 17th century crowd would have enjoyed. The old ideas still work. The best ensemble scene is the lesson on love's enemies in which counter-tenor Andrew Radley's camp but commanding Cupid instructs the chorus of Graces. In the original 1682 production these were the Chapel Royal choristers which only a few years earlier would have included Henry Purcell himself. Doubtless he was not far away and, who knows, may even have been playing in the band. As we know he loved the theatre and Dido and Aeneas was already forming in his fertile mind...

Blow's Venus and Adonis is at Wilton's Music Hall, Grae's Alley off Ensign Street E1 (020 7702 2789) until Saturday 14 February.

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