It looked like a coup for Scottish Opera when Rory Bremner was announced as scriptwriter for its new touring production of Orpheus in the Underworld. Offenbach’s operetta satirises the hypocrisy of public figures – the very meat and drink of Bremner’s career. The Edinburgh-born comedian recently moved back to Scotland, and what better way of reconnecting than to adapt a classic musical comedy for local audiences?
But apart from isolated references to Robert Burns (the national bard), Paisley (a decaying satellite of Glasgow) and Tommy Sheridan (a disgraced Scottish politician), Bremner keeps his feet planted firmly south of the border, trying hard to be funny – as has long been the English way with Offenbach – and not quite succeeding. His rhyming couplets may be slick, with topical references to Botox, Berlusconi, the banking crisis and the broken society, but when strung together over two hours, they sound like faded punchlines.
It’s not all Bremner’s fault. Oliver Mears’ production, designed by Simon Holdsworth, turns Offenbach into a weak parody of celebrity culture, drowning the stage with tabloid prurience and draining the fizz from French operetta style. Orpheus speaks like an upper-class twit, Euridice like an EastEnders harpy. There’s endless dialogue and not enough music, and even the Cancan falls flat. The one moment of unforced comedy is, ironically, a piece of pure Scots humour – when Ross McInroy, one of only two native members of the cast, turns John Styx into an authentic Glaswegian drunk.
The best thing about the show is its hard-working cast, all of whom project well and give the impression they, at least, are having fun: comic timing is excellent. The star performance comes from Jane Harrington’s saucy, pouty Euridice, closely followed by Gavan Ring’s larger-than-life Pluto. Bizarrely, the musical accompaniment is restricted to a pianist, the indefatigable Ruth Wilkinson. Scotland may now boast a grandly named “Royal Conservatoire” for training young musicians, but it can’t afford to maintain an opera chorus and orchestra. Apart from next month’s revival of The Barber of Seville, this Orpheus will have to do until January.
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