Written and directed by Conor Mitchell and produced by the Belfast Ensemble, The Musician is an enjoyable operatic retelling of the famous medieval tale of The Pied Pier of Hamlin.
The performance is preceded by a short introduction. I shall start here. Whilst the host definitely has good diction and stage presence, and vitality and vigour in her performance, the introduction itself is rather irrelevant to the performance that follows. Aesthetically, noting the huge orange Y and the host’s orange and white costume, there is nothing to prepare us for what is to come, and with very little information being provided, not even what the host’s name is, it just becomes rather pointless and, if anything, subtractive. It should be removed. Furthermore, we see in this introduction our first of many errors involving lighting: the host falls short of the spotlight, remaining completely out of view when reaching it, which makes for a jarring edit (editing by Josh Mulhall) when cutting to the next shot. One must stand on the very downstage edge of a spotlight, not in its middle, which allows the entire performer’s body to be lit, rather than just the feet…
Introduction out of the way, let us move on to the main performance. We are first presented with a short overture by the 16-piece orchestra (led by Clare Hadwen and conducted by Tom Brady). The music (composed by Conor Mitchell), though lacking any memorable motif, is very well composed and pleasing. All musicians are, indeed, very talented and commendable. But then we move on to the narrator, Matthew Cavan, and our first major issue arises in editorial and directorial decisions. The narrator is known as The Traveller, though there is no indication whatsoever throughout the rest of the performance that this is, indeed, his role. At the very beginning, he holds a map and sits down for a sandwich and a game of I Spy –– how very horror-like… –– and this is unfortunately all we see of his travels. There is no explanation as to where he is going or what the purpose of his journey is, and so the function of this becomes negligible and hence deletable. It would have been a lot more effective for The Traveller to have been a mere narrator, a mysterious figure, one who is concerned only with the telling of his story. I instantly think of the well-known TV series ‘Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids’ and the character and function of the narrator in this series. Something more comparable to this would have been good in this performance.
The main issue with this theme of travelling — or lake thereof — is in the fact that the Belfast Ensemble clearly want us to feel as though we are in a theatre when watching this virtual performance, noting the stripped-back set design (also by Conor Mitchell) and the film’s various compositions (cameras operated by Michael Foster, Chris Eva and Will Archer). So…are we travelling, or are we in a theatre? If it is, indeed, the latter, a better composition should be examined, for only the tip of The Traveller’s seat is in view, and the stage is out of focus, making this composition all the more questionable. I fail to see why The Traveller was not simply on the stage to begin with, shrouded in darkness but for a suffocative spotlight of his own. Our relationship with the world of the play, our role, and our context is dysfunctional here and should be better managed. What is more, during this scene, the stage is too harshly lit (lighting by Mary Tumelty), making it feel almost like the beginnings of a technical rehearsal, rather than the beginning of a performance. Aesthetically, this opening is incredibly displeasing.
I mentioned that The Traveller should have been on stage from the beginning, and another reason I say this is because of how his role develops. The Traveller becomes a secondary character, which is most jarring, considering it means that we often miss out on key events and actions in the narrative, replaced, instead, by his mere retelling. If he is so involved in the story, especially given the revelation of his significance at the end, he should surely be more integral from the start. Even more jarring is how he just ends up on the stage, after being in the stalls. This preferable mysteriousness I mentioned above would enable him to glide in and out of the narrative, clearly distinct from its telling. As it stands, he just appears out of nowhere but in a most casual and unmarked way. His entrances should, instead, be more mystical and intriguing. How he appears in the performance will be something I come back to later in this review, but now I shall mention another factor that causes a friction between The Traveller and the world of the musical: his costume (costume design by Laura Firby).
The Traveller’s bright-red suit, complete with shoes and a tie of the same colour, contrasts greatly with the otherwise pale and bleak set design. Considering his relation to the story, one would expect a more pertinent costume. And surely, he should put on the sewn-together coats at the end, once his identity is revealed, no? Instead, The Traveller simply stands out like a sore thumb — not what we would expect from a narrator! I imagine the red is to symbolise blood, as this is a horror opera, but the relevance is far too understated. Besides, as mentioned above, as it currently stands, The Traveller’s role is made not to be horrific but to invitingly tell a tale. But The Traveller’s costume is not the only one with which I have difficulty. Costume is an odd one in this production. We see a mixture of modern and early to mid-20th century dress, with The Boy, supposedly homeless and orphaned, wearing what seems to be a modern reimagining of the remains of 20th-century school attire. All together, the visuals are completely off, and the characters seem to exist independently of each other’s time periods.
But this is perhaps an issue caused directly by the dramatic text that aims to present ‘a medieval story told in a 21st century way’. Well, The Traveller’s suit is a rather contemporary visual, but beyond that, there is nothing particularly 21st-century about orphaned, homeless children around the marketplace and the condemning of witchcraft. Edits need to be made here. Either present the story as it has been told, as the product of a distant era, or rework the tale to fit a modern world. As it stands currently, it is nonsensical.
Turning our focus away from the intricacies of the dramatic text and towards the performers, our main character, The Boy, is played by Sarah Richmond. Richmond’s physicality and energy are superb. She is gesticulative and emotive, and her character is thus made very legible and accessible. With the intended audience being children of six years of age and up, and with opera being particularly difficult for children to follow, this level of expressivity is needed. However, there are a few moments where this physicality does fall flat — I think especially to the dance scene wherein The Boy first discovers music and dances to its tunes. Perhaps a directorial issue, Richmond’s dancing is…non-existent, really. I would use the word ‘flailing’, but this implies more energetic movement than what was demonstrated in this scene. The Traveller describes it as ‘dancing on air’, but aimless, untailored and awkward-looking movement is perhaps the best description. This should be a scene that invokes awe and splendour; instead, it just seems like The Boy does not know what to do with himself or is in pain, circling The Musician like an over-enthused, ridiculous sumo wrestler preparing for his weak attack. Nevertheless, moments like these ignored, an excellent performance from Richmond who sang clearly and wonderfully throughout.
The same cannot be said for Rebecca Murphy who plays The Vile Little Girl. It simply feels as though Murphy is doing the bare minimum, going through all the necessary movements needed to get her paycheque at the end. Her diction is bad quite regularly, though her voice is adequate, despite her overuse of vibrato, and her expressivity is completely non-existent. Watching Richmond and Murphy perform alongside one another, it is as though we are watching two separate performances. Whether in her confession scene, where she reveals she has tricked The Boy, or in her tantrum when not getting enough attention, Murphy is simply too stiff and restrictive in her movements. Better fluidity and transformativity is urgently needed. Even when she is being mauled close to death by the rats, Murphy simply kneels at the back of the stage calmly and applies the red paint onto her body and face in a way most matter-of-fact, and this is precisely what I mean by doing the bare minimum. She is still visible, still under attack, yet…nothing. She needs to be constantly moving, wriggling, slathering the paint over her body and face as though the paint is the rats itself and she is trying to swat them off. Find a creative way to perform this otherwise bland sort of action! If it was not for the narration, even in grand scenes like this, one would have absolutely no idea what is happening in some scenes. A simply boring performance from Murphy. If only she emoted as often as she licked her lips between lyrics, the kind of tick one should learn to discard as a performer on stage.
As for Paul Carey Jones, playing The Musician, expressivity is also lacking. This is a mystical character, a magical and intriguing figure, mysterious and wise, he should be presented as such, not just as an ordinary and stubborn man with a flute. He is the titular character, after all, and so should be represented a lot more vibrantly. And I should mention costume here too, as something more than a bland brown coat and suit would have aided this transformation. Jones often falls flat, missing his notes, particularly in the latter part of the performance, and his diction when singing his lower tones becomes simply diabolical; it is a struggle to have any idea what is being sung for an adult, let alone a child of six.
Jones also has a duet with Cavan, and it seems as though Cavan has a history in musical theatre, rather than in opera. Regardless of whether or not this is the case, the singing styles of the two performers clash drastically, and this should have been something addressed by vocal coaches and the director. The duet is absolutely horrendous, and it is impossible to salvage a sense of rhythm or tune and equally impossible to fathom what either of them are singing about. However, I should note that this is an issue not specific to just this duet but to practically all moments where performers sing simultaneously.
There are some key problems that need to be addressed in this performance. These range from minor refinements — such as making sure the first mouse is hidden well in Richmond’s pocket before the second is produced under Murphy’s foot; changing the rabbit puppet to be less cartoony and resemble something slightly more serious, as the mouse puppet does; having Richmond throw her bag off stage herself, rather than passing it to Cavan, who plays an otherworldly narrator who is supposed to have no contact with the characters whatsoever; removing an illusion-shattering cutaway to the flutist in the orchestra playing when we should be seeing The Boy play, instead; or sticking down Jones’s overly visible lavalier microphone — to more drastic elements, one major one being that aforementioned replacement of performed action with The Traveller’s storytelling.
The character of The Mouse is already introduced when Maeve McGreevy portrays his dancing –– a wonderful, if perhaps a little long, dance choreographed by Jennifer Rooney –– and so it is surprising that McGreevy is not used again when The Mouse is said to have made its scurrying way to The Vile Little Girl’s house. Instead, we are simply told that he does so by The Traveller in a rhythmic poem. Similarly, when The Musician expresses that talent is required for The Boy to play the flute, The Traveller tells us what next was said and how…even though the characters are right there to show us themselves. Show; Don’t Tell, one of the key rules of an energised and entertaining performance, is broken regularly. This needs to be reconsidered, especially noting, again, that this is a performance for children. As for this scene, when The Boy finally plays the flute, this rule is soon followed, and we finally see The Boy puffing and tooting until a tune inevitably comes out, but this melodrama should have come earlier and is but all too late. After performing the role of the crowd, the Butcher and the Nun, interacting with The Musician, The Traveller then says that an enthralled public come to watch The Boy play…and then he disappears and leaves Richmond to mime the flute alone in a spotlight. This level of inconsistency as to what function The Traveller plays needs to be addressed. As a side note, one relationship I do like, however, between the characters and The Traveller is that they all [for the majority of the musical] sing whilst he speaks. This is a good technique to divide the ‘real’ world, wherein The Traveller resides, and the world of the story.
A final note on the projections (designed and operated by Gavin Peden). Whilst the low angle used in the market scene is effective in symbolising The Boy’s insignificance to passersby, the same should not be implied once The Vile Little Girl and The Musician enter the stage. Presumably, the feet we see passing in the footage are those of the market crowd, and these are supposed to fall still, enthralled by The Musician’s work. Thus, the visuals here do not match up with the new action on stage. I would change the angle presented not only for this reason but because the stage is so small, suffocated already by the surrounding orchestra, and so becomes simply dwarfed, along with the performers atop it, by the overbearing overhead screen. I would also change the low angle in the meadow footage too. Similarly, we have the projection of The Traveller’s face as he watches The Boy from above. When it is just the eye, and not the face, I think this is a very powerful image, but having The Traveller both present on stage and on screen is a weird visual, particularly when the eyes start to lose The Boy on stage. This should have been better choreographed. I should also mention Cavan’s gloomy lack of emotion in this footage; his overlooking seems ominous, which is something he does not represent elsewhere. The footage simply presents him in a way most out of character. Then, there are the armies of mice and rats projected onto the floor. These could be better refined, but it stands as a wonderful idea, a good visual and a clever way of animating what would otherwise remain an immobile plushy toy. Lastly, the words ‘talent’ and ‘Hell’ being projected onto the screen is an odd decision –– perhaps fire would have been better for this latter — not to mention because talent is a theme so easily overlooked in this text, garnered by a few simple puffs in a flute.
All being said, this is by no means an awful production, just one that needs a lot of very basic spadework. It has the grounds to be an exceptional performance but currently relies too much on its audience’s imagination. The two main salvific elements of this musical are Richmond’s characterisation and the overall plot. Whilst there is an issue in the aforementioned attempt to modernise the tale and in the dysfunction of The Traveller, the dramatic text is very strong, clear and entertaining. It provides a good origin story for the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and its text is easy to follow, with lyrics (libretto also by Conor Mitchell) being simple, which is good, given its intended audience.