Simon Ward reviews The Elixir of Love at The King’s Head Theatre
Just as the weather is turning autumnal and the nights are drawing in, ‘The Elixir of Love’ arrives to provide a blast of much-needed Barry Island sunshine and joie de vivre. Gaetano Donizetti’s classic comic opera has been transposed to the Welsh seaside resort of Barry Island, famed nowadays for Gavin and Stacey, but this is the early 1980s when Stacey’s parents were no doubt hanging around the cafe and mooning over Shakin’ Stevens and Bonnie Tyler.
This is a very loosely adapted version of the original, with lyrics completely re-imagined by Chris Harris and David Eaton to fit in with their chosen setting. Be warned – the Welsh have a way with the well-placed swear-word and this is exploited to the full, often to hilarious effect. Donizetti and Romani’s feather-light plot translates perfectly to its new context.
Adina (Alys Roberts) runs the local cafe, and so counts I suppose as wealthy for Barry. One of her regulars is Nicky (David Powton), whose main problem in life is never picking up the courage to tell Adina how he really feels about her. She in turn is fed-up with seeing him moping about all the time. When Adina’s old boyfriend Brandon returns from sea as a navy captain, no less, and ready to take up where they left off, she is liable to have her head turned, as indeed is best friend and confidante Gina (Caroline Taylor). What is Nicky to do to gain some courage and win Adina’s love from his rival? Enter ‘Doctor’ Dulcamara (Matthew Kellett), a snake-oil merchant skipping from seaside town to town, never staying long enough for anyone to find out that none of his cures actually work. He has just the thing, the very ‘elixir of love’…
A co-production between the King’s Head Theatre and Opera’r Ddraig, the productions Welsh credentials are impeccable, and it shows in the warmth, wit and generosity of spirit throughout the production. Performances are uniformly excellent – in such an small space it would be disastrous if it were otherwise. One of the joys of the intimacy is the chance to appreciate up-close the intricacy of the ensemble pieces as all the characters share their takes on the unfolding events. Expertly deploying the cast around the perfectly rendered seaside cafe set (designed by Amanda Mascarenhas) director Hannah Noone allows us to appreciate the subtlety of each singer’s work, and ensures that sight lines are never obscured.
Too often the comedy in opera feels false or forced. Not so here. The witty script and outstanding performances prove exactly why this is an enduring classic. Dulcamara in particular is brilliantly played by Matthew Kellett – the shock on his face when he thinks that one of his potions has actually had the desired effect is worth the ticket price on its own. And fans of the original should be assured that ‘La furtive lagrima’ is still here, lyrically adapted but still poignant, in spite of the surrounding hilarity. Musical Director David Easton keeps the action moving at a vigorous and sprightly tempo on the keyboards.
This is an utterly charming and hilarious blast of summer sun which is the perfect antidote to the gloomy weather outside.
The Elixir of Love runs at The King’s Head Theatre until Saturday 26th October
Production images courtesy of Bill Knight.