“I’m not saying I’m Batman. I’m just saying nobody has ever seen me and Batman in a room together,” reads the slogan on trendy Falke’s ironic t-shirt. Furious at a recent drinking prank played on him by his pal Eisenstein, in which photos of a blind-drunk Falke dressed as Batman went viral on social media, Falke now wants to get his own back – with the aid of Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde and Adele, their family nanny, though only Falke knows where it’s all headed. Baseless Fabric Theatre’s contemporary interpretation of Strauss’ operetta brings it to where it has always, to some extent, lived: the world of social media, of rife gossip, giggling humiliation of others , and schadenfreude. Even though Strauss didn’t have an app for it in the 18th century, he perceived our egotism and vulnerability when it comes to what others think of us with an unerring eye in this tightly-drawn, fast paced farce.
It’s rather a treat to be allowed to sit still for Joanna Turner’s lean, entertaining production for Grimeborn: Baseless Fabric are known for their promenade opera, often on high streets (I last chased their excellent mobile Così round the streets of Merton, including in and out of Morrison’s). Marina Hadjilouca designs with simplicity and economy for the Arcola’s petite Studio 2, using a handful of large balloons, some white boxes, sculptural lighting, and not much else beyond a strong sense of contemporary urban chic to place the action squarely in London today. Costumes are brilliantly on point: Falke and Eisenstein are designer-label yuppies, Rosalinde an immaculately dressed but overwrought mother to Eisenstein’s twin boys, and Adele defiantly casual in denim, trainers and braids. With so little visual fuss, yet so much trouble quietly taken, Hadjilouca’s design stands back and lets the piece flow, the ideal backdrop for Joanna Turner’s skilfully choreographed, high-energy direction. Compressing a cast of eleven into four characters comes off remarkably well: Falke absorbs Prince Orlov quite naturally. Eisenstein is facing, not prison, but community service as a punishment for previous drunken behaviour, and in the most delicious comic moment he shuffles grimly across the stage in silence in a COMMUNITY PAYBACK tabard, sourly using a grabber to pick up the shards of golden foil left over from Falke’s fateful party, which he attended in the guise of a footballer, and flirted with his own wife, disguised as a model – all of which is, of course, filmed on iPhones for viral distribution in Falke’s revenge.
The laughs come thick and fast; the score is cleverly conveyed by bassoon, violin and accordion (arranged by bassoonist Leo Geyer); and the singing is glorious. The exceptional Claire Wild is on top form as Rosalinde, her passionate, agile soprano bringing real dramatic verve to the whole, acting with true panache. Wild is well matched by a memorably sassy, smooth and melodious Abigail Kelly as Adele, whose control during musically-annotated laughter is breathtaking. James McOran-Campbell’s honeyed tones make Falke rather lush, which is no bad thing: McOran-Campbell inhabits the world of the piece throughout with joyful intensity, even waltzing a little with the boxes as he rearranges the stage between scenes. David Horton’s lovable lager-lout Eisenstein perfectly hits the grey area between objectionable oaf and endearing Peter Pan, sometimes sweet with winning charm, occasionally vile and unreconstructed, in a clever and appealing performance from this talented young tenor.
Turner may not dig deep into the blacker bits of this operetta, but she mines its surface for fresh, light and coruscating comedy gold: and comes up trumps.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (6-7 August only)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre