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Review: Pleasure At Liverpool Playhouse

PLEASURE is a new one-act chamber opera by Liverpool born composer Mark Simpson, to a libretto by Melanie Challenger. One of a series of co-commissions from Opera North, Aldeburgh Music and the Royal Opera House, the production played for one night only in the composer’s home city at the Playhouse on Wednesday, en-route from its premiere in Leeds toward dates in Aldeburgh and London.

A cast of four soloists are accompanied by the Manchester-based contemporary music ensemble Psappha conducted by Nicholas Kok.

Photo: Robert Workman
Photo: Robert Workman

Lesley Garrett sings the role of Val, a faded beauty of a toilet attendant in a gay nightclub, to whom the regulars pour out their hearts as a mother-confessor. Timothy Nelson is Nathan, Val’s estranged son, who sneaks in to leave a gift for her, and here begins an emotional and ultimately tragic encounter between mother and son.

There is a sub-plot, in which club regular Matthew (Nick Pritchard) admires Nathan’s beauty and propositions him, which perplexes Nathan who is not gay but who seems to be deeply affected by the advances.

The only person to understand much of Val’s past is Anna Fewmore, the resident drag queen, sung here by Steven Page. The part is by turns grotesque, comic and knowing, much in the manner of Shakespeare’s fools, and provides a sounding board for Val’s thoughts.

Photo: Robert Workman
Photo: Robert Workman

The soloists are well cast in the roles and all are in fine voice, with the delivery pin-sharp making every line clear through the weighty textures of the music. The ensemble is placed on a raised platform overlooking the stage from the rear, and some of Anna’s numbers are performed from a projecting platform at this upper level, including a high-camp striptease with balloons.

Simpson has a distinctive musical language that’s hard to pin down, but nods toward the sound world of Thomas Ades. The score has a richness of texture and a strong rhythmic drive, and is well balanced with the voices. The composer has set the piece outside the club, in the toilets and out in the street, so that he only alludes to the dance music beyond. In his programme note he explains that this is a conscious decision to stay in his own musical style without having to resort to pastiche of techno or electronic music.

In the earlier scenes Melanie Challenger’s text is a little clumsy, with some of the character development feeling rather clichéd, but it settles down as the work progresses.

Director Tim Albery negotiates his cast sinuously around the obstacle-course of a set from designer Leslie Travers – a massive, deconstructed neon sign that depicts the various passageways and plumbing of the club.

The narrative, though short, is one of traditionally operatic tragedy. Val and Nathan’s story could have happened anywhere, but Mark Simpson chose to set it in surroundings familiar to him from his teenage years, basing Val on a real toilet attendant who many Liverpudlians still recall, if you ask in the right places.

Pleasure is at Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh this weekend followed by a week of performances at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Review by Nigel Smith


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