October 4, 2007 5:10 pm

The Shout, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

The Shout calls its work “choral theatre” and over the past decade the 16-voice ensemble, under its composer and musical director Orlando Gough, has staged some dramatic pieces in unusual settings. It sat at the centre of London’s Roundhouse for Because I Sing and most recently sang from the bank to community choirs floating on the Thames for the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall.

For Fingerprint, they have taken their non-narrative theatrical style to a school setting to consider identity: one person’s response to a group and a group’s response to an outsider. As with all The Shout’s work, it was executed in unaccompanied song. The result was at times moving and arresting, but the attempt to sing out all the ideas in full chorus sadly ran out of steam in the second half.

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It began with a solo voice singing an extraordinary duet with itself, inhaled vocalisations set against exhaled notes, and then designer Katrina Lindsay’s bare classroom set gradually filled with pupils clothed in off-beat polka-dot school uniforms. With the ensemble at last assembled, a registration took place, which had the class not simply affirming their names but calling out “blue eyes”, “C of E”, “Rhesus negative” and other markers of particularity. Various classroom antics followed: a boy isolated and harangued by the rest found himself singing “Jerusalem”, his song then being taken up by the crowd and changed into something rich and strange; a chemistry teacher explaining DNA to the class was playfully mocked by her students, who repeated her lesson with sung-back lines. And then a crowd of extra singers took the stage and a pressing throng of voices took over. How, it seemed to ask, can a person hold on to individuality when the mass takes hold? How can a person keep their voice?

These were good questions that became a little lost in the organisation of the material and Emma Bernard’s direction struggled to keep the focus. Operating as it does on the fringes of concert, opera and theatre and eschewing a conventional expositional plot, The Shout’s work needs to keep its ideas sharp for maximum effect, however glorious it may sound. For all that, though, Fingerprint was a wonderfully playful, provocative piece.

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