Paul Bunyan, Peacock Theatre, London – review

Visionary it ain’t. You can’t even excuse Paul Bunyan on the basis of its eclectic music. The Broadway operetta that Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden set out to create during their wartime exile in the US barely qualifies as a school musical, so absent is its narrative, so shallow its characters, so inchoate its idea of the American Dream. If Paul Bunyan hadn’t been written by Britten, we wouldn’t pay it the slightest attention. But in the composer’s centenary year it’s as well to remind ourselves of the flop that was his first stage work, and be thankful that his only mature failure happened out of sight and sound of a suspicious UK establishment, which might have used it to queer the path to Peter Grimes.

In that context, who better to champion Paul Bunyan today than British Youth Opera? What this folksy homily on America’s force of destiny needs is energy and vitality, which BYO supplies in spades – plus finesse. What Bunyan offers in return is singable tunes, a simplistic scenario and sugar-coated cameos – dozens of them, all conveniently tailored to aspiring opera singers. No fewer than 44 solo parts are listed, to which must be added BYO’s chorus of 36 and a host of technical and backstage apprentices. It’s hard to imagine a centenary venture that matches the composer’s youth-and-education mission so effectively with his commitment to excellence.

And yes, the quality of singing and acting is consistently, inspiringly high – beginning with the professional touch of conductor Peter Robinson and the flair of a production team led by William Kerley (director), Jason Southgate (designer), David Howe (lighting) and Mandy Demetriou (movement). The visual ambience – a tree-stump platform, a motif of brooms, a silhouette of soft rainbow colours – is fluent, witty, theatrical and true. Bunyan, a speaking role, resembles a show host-cum-stump politician. The finale – McDonald’s insignia, farm-style mailbox, Mickey Mouse and Manhattan skyline – satirises America’s mid-century zeitgeist, evoking the fulfilment of dreams and the good life.

Anchored by Will Edelsten’s Bunyan and the Southbank Sinfonia, the performance rightly profiles the BYO ensemble above any individual, though Dominick Felix’s Western Union Boy and Louise Kemeny’s Tiny make standout contributions.

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