La Bohème at Charing Cross Theatre
Robin Norton-Hale’s revamp of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème first opened in late 2009, originally staged at The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn. After great success and critical acclaim, La Bohème moved to The Soho Theatre in 2010 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production in 2011, an achievement solidifying Robin Norton-Hale’s version as a definitive contemporary achievement.
Hale takes the opera originally set in bohemian 1830s Paris and transfers it to modern-day London. Operatic purists will no doubt claim that such a large contextual leap will lose the original’s appeal and meaning, but Hale claims this makes La Bohème “as immediate, relevant, accessible and emotionally engaging for today’s audiences as it was when it was first performed in 1896”. Despite the time and language difference, little else has significantly changed.
Comprising four acts split in two, La Bohème is known for its comedic first half and progressively tragic second half, and while this has remained the same, Hale’s version of Act Two is by far the most unique and inventive segment. As a short refreshment break is announced following Act One, audience members leave their seats and head for the bar. While most are queuing for drinks, they are soon unexpectedly joined by characters from the stage and it becomes clear that Act Two has already started, not taking place on the stage this time but among the audience. The members of the audience, sitting and standing, are transformed into street spectators surrounded by different events that would take place in Soho or Kilburn, such as one of our main characters asking a drunken bootleg DVD merchant if he has a copy of Skyfall, or a travelling argument between a couple which seems to occupy every part of the auditorium throughout the act.
Having been originally designed to accommodate a different type of stage arrangement, the Charing Cross Theatre fails to contain Act Two of La Bohème. As innovative and quirky as the act is, seated audience members had a hard time twisting necks and re-arranging positions to follow the action, most of it taking place directly behind them. Despite this, Act Two was by far the most popular and amusing. A lengthy but powerful Act Three follows, descending into tragedy and accommodating some of the most impressive pieces in the opera. In particular, Rodolfo (played by Gareth Morris) and Musetta (Una Reynolds) delivered exceptional vocal and theatrical performances.
La Bohème is refreshingly accessible whilst offering many laughs and thrills, although its uninhibited act two is restrained by the inhibited venue.
La Bohème is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 19th January 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.