tue 12/11/2019

Paul Bunyan, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Paul Bunyan, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre

Paul Bunyan, English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio Theatre

A problem piece with many saving graces inventively and enthusiastically brought to life

A problem piece: English Touring Opera's Paul BunyanPhoto: Richard Hubert Smith

Paul Bunyan, best described as a "choral operetta", was Britten’s first foray into the operatic, and much of its value is surely gleaned through the prism of subsequent successes. The composer withdrew it after its poorly received US premiere in 1941, and its rehabilitation didn’t begin until over 30 years later. In its use of American folk and popular music styles, steadfastly melodic score and exploration of Americana, it was almost certainly bidding for a Broadway slot (interesting to imagine a parallel universe where Britten was embraced by the musical theatre world).

Despite its appealing music and witty libretto by WH Auden, it remains a problem piece, and hardly a gift to stage directors. Its allegorical storytelling has little forward narrative thrust, and the cast of characters is too large for any one to acquire any significant depth. Paul Bunyan himself, being a mythical giant lumberjack, is represented by a disembodied voice – as a piece of theatre, it suffers many handicaps. This ETO production by Liam Steel cannot entirely transcend these peculiarities, but it is certainly inventive in getting round them, peppering proceedings with what the work as written is missing – action.

The band swoons, lilts and gambols through the quirky score

The single set is a barn in weathered timber – what an estate agent might call a live/work unit – with three-tiered bunks along the side and tools of the lumberjack trade lying around. It is always interesting to see how a production will deal with the Linbury’s limited black-box theatre, and here the orchestra has been placed behind the stage – the slatted barn allowing sound through, though not perhaps with the immediacy one might have wished.

Paul Bunyan (a non-singing part) is voiced by a pre-recorded Damian Lewis, of off the telly, and represented on stage by an Uncle Sam hat and a stars 'n' stripes sash, either propped atop a ladder or worn by a member of the cast as a chunk of narration is acted out.

In a large and well-balanced cast there are no weak links – a few fluffed lines would hardly have been noticeable if it weren’t for the surtitles. Caryl Hughes as Tiny gets some good solo material and sings it brightly and sensitively. Wyn Pencarreg is an impressive Hel Helson, one of the few characters who have any sort of development, and whose dream sequence marks one of the definite high points of the production – thanks also to the combined efforts of the director, set/costume designer (Anna Fleischle) and lighting designer (Guy Hoare).

The band, under conductor Philip Sunderland, swoons, lilts and gambols through the quirky score, but will almost certainly sound better in some of the more conventional theatres on tour in the coming months.

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