Arcola Theatre, London
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori
The celebrations of the centenary of Women’s Suffrage in Britain have reached Dalston’s cultural heartland as Spectra Ensemble presents a little-known opera by Suffragette composer Ethel Smyth, The Boatswain’s Mate, at Grimeborn. Smyth had to fight hard to become a composer, and even harder to get her work on stage, but she won through on both counts, being the first woman to have an opera performed at the New York Met.
You might be forgiven for thinking that any opera we are going to get from Smyth could be tough medicine: something stridently defiant, even deliberately difficult. What we actually encounter in The Boatswain’s Mate is a warmly comic operatic farce: undeniably empowering, but also incisive, touchingly romantic and, most importantly, hilarious.
An isolated country pub, The Beehive, is run single-handedly by its queen bee, the determined and charismatic widow Mrs Waters (Hilary Cronin). Elderly retired sailor Harry Benn (John Upperton) is keen to take possession of both lovely Mrs Waters and her thriving business, repeatedly proposing to her but finding himself repeatedly and firmly refused: Mrs Waters proclaims herself “once bitten, twice shy” when it comes to marriage.
Unable to accept this, Benn persuades a wandering former soldier, Ned Travers (Shaun Aquilina) to carry out a fake ‘burglary’ so that Benn can finally win her heart with a dashing midnight rescue, staged to his own design. However, his plan backfires spectacularly when Mrs Waters proves herself more than capable of defending her pub from intruders, but in a brilliant twist, she may not, in fact, be able to defend her heart from the inconveniently dashing, open-hearted Ned. In a mounting storm of physical attraction and social convention, Smyth screws the farce tighter and tighter while creating a very real drama of courtship shot through with humour, wit and respect.
Director Cecilia Stinton slightly overeggs Mrs Waters’ prim respectability at the outset, and the drama feels a little static and lumpen to start, but just stay with it: once this opera takes off, it goes like a rocket. Christianna Mason’s sparse, effective design takes us to Margate in the Coronation year of 1953, with a pub simply suggested by a couple of tables and stools, and a revolving window alternating parlour and bedroom. Hilary Cronin’s Mrs Waters carries the piece with increasing presence, moving from schoolmistress control to magnetic emotional command with her pleasing soprano, finding increasing interest in her character’s secret inner vulnerabilities. John Upperton’s bald, tattooed Benn, a little unfocused to start in Studio 2’s very intimate setting, soon gets the laughs rolling in. Shaun Aquilina’s mellifluous Ned similarly grows in dramatic conviction, conjuring superb chemistry with Cronin. John Warner, leading the accompaniment from the piano, delivers Smyth’s score (in a piano trio) with exceptional care and skill: we have rollicking shanties, spikes of high and ribald drama and sinuous themes of thoughtful yearning, not to mention The March of the Women embedded in the overture. Disarming, surprising and brilliant.