The star of Gabriel is slim, sweet-voiced and versatile. It is a trumpet – the natural, valveless trumpet to be precise. In the hands of superb trumpeter Alison Balsom and playwright Samuel Adamson, it becomes the magical link between a rag-bag of disparate scenes, musical episodes, themes and characters in raucous 1690s London.
Adamson describes the show as “an entertainment” rather than a play and its abundance proves both its virtue and its vice. It becomes too busy at times and loses focus and point. But it has a tremendous vibrancy, creating a vivid sense of a teeming city, delivered with relish by director Dominic Dromgoole. Characters spill off the stage and into the crowd, as if someone had tipped a bucket of Thames eels and sent them cascading across the boards. And through it all runs the trumpet, capable, in the hands of composer Henry Purcell, of channelling both the loftiest and deepest of human emotions and the most basic and bawdy. This is a show that includes life and death, love and loss, brawling and beauty and that revels in both trumpeting and trumping.
We never meet Purcell, but he is ever-present through his music, which Adamson uses wittily as a key to open doors into different lives at the end of a tumultuous century. We meet the young Duke of Gloucester (Joshua James), sickly nephew to William and Mary. We meet Francis (Sam Cox), a Thames waterman who holds forth, cabbie-style, to his captive audience, but in so doing fills us in on the feel and traffic of the city. We meet actors and theatre managers, wigmakers, drinkers and fops. Most memorable though are the musicians: the real-life Shore brothers – John (Richard Riddell), a virtuoso, welcomes the expressive possibilities of the trumpet; Bill (Trevor Fox), a boozy loudmouth, prizes its pulling power on the battlefield and in the bedroom – and Arabella Hunt (Jessie Buckley), a singer who married another woman and sang with rare plaintive beauty.
The lack of a clear narrative line makes for bagginess in places and the show suffers sometimes from romp-fatigue. But it is immensely enjoyable and humane, contains moments of surprising pathos and tenderness, and is played with generosity and zest by a cast that includes English Concert orchestra musicians. On the stage then is the earthy mix from which sublime music grew; above it all soars that music, played with exquisite eloquence by Balsom.