Merrie England – a comic opera with libretto by Basil Hood
Abigail / Page 2 – Ruth Leavesley
Pol – Rachel Holbrook
Kate – Jody Ellen Robinson
Daisy / Page 1 – Sammy Andrews
Big Ben – Stuart Hickey
A Butcher – Alexander Beck
A Baker – Luke Courtier
A Tinker – Rhys Saunders
A Tailor – Brendan Matthew
The May Queen –Jamie Birkett
Long Tom – Christopher Killick
Jill-All-Alone – Nichola Jolley
Walter Wilkins – Daniel CaneSilas Simkins – Tom Giles
Sir Walter Raleigh – Michael Riseley
Bessie Throckmorton – Gemma Sandzer
The Earl of Essex – Stephen Darcy
The Queen’s Fool – Rachel Holbrook
Queen Elizabeth I – Virge Gilchrist
Eamonn O’Dwyer – Musical Director & Keyboard
Alex Sutton – Director & Choreographer
Luke Holbrook – Producer
Philip Lindley – Designer
Miguel Vicente – Lighting Designer
Sophia Anastasiou – Costume Designer
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 29 May, 2012
Venue: Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Since 2006 the small Finborough Theatre on the edge of Earl’s Court in West London has presented a series called “Celebrating British Music Theatre”, which, like Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals presentations that looks at rarely produced American musicals, gives audiences a chance to see forgotten British shows. These have included Leslie Stuart’s Florodora, Lionel Monckton’s Our Miss Gibbs, Harold Fraser-Simson’s The Maid of the Mountains, Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate, Sandy Wilson’s The Buccaneer, Oscar Asche’s Chu Chin Chow, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd, Ivor Novello’s Perchance to Dream and Gay’s the Word, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Grand Duke.
Just in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee comes Merrie England, Sir Edward German’s tale of rivalries at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Since nobody has written an opera for Elizabeth II’s current celebrations (Britten wrote Gloriana for the Queen’s Coronation) it is apt to revive Merrie England. It is a fitting tribute to Britain’s royalty and shows that being a Queen can be not only a difficult job but fun too. Merrie England opened at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1902, ran for 120 performances and then toured for three months before returning to the Savoy for a further season. It remained a popular piece especially with amateur companies and in 1953, the year of Elizabeth II’s Coronation, over 500 societies staged the work. It has been recorded several times but has fallen into relative obscurity.
The music of Edward German (1862-1936) is now rarely played, although in his day he was very popular. Before the turn of the 20th-century he ran the Globe Theatre in London, where he staged his musical version of Richard III. He wrote the music for Henry Irving’s production of Henry VIII, as well as many concert pieces. In 1900, following Arthur Sullivan’s death, Richard D’Oyly Carte commissioned German to finish Sullivan’s The Emerald Isle. German’s final work for the stage was Fallen Fairies, written with W. S. Gilbert, but it was such a bad experience. In 1911 German was the first composer to write music for a British film, Henry VIII, and he continued to write and re-write music for publication and recordings. He was knighted in 1928.
Basil Hood (1864-1917) was the author of some of the Savoy Operas and, arguably, a better writer than Gilbert. He wrote several musical comedies before taking over the mantle and the pen of Gilbert and with Sullivan wrote The Rose of Persia before tackling The Emerald Isle which brought Hood and German together.
The libretto and music are heavily influenced by both Gilbert and Sullivan. Merrie England has a similar sort of sly humour in the text and jolly jingoistic tunes. The story occurs on May Day with the crowning of the May Queen in Windsor. Her guards are the brothers Big Ben and Long Tom, who are identical apart from one thing. Following a little nudge-nudge, wink-wink innuendo we learn that Ben loves the May Queen but Tom loves Jill-All-Alone, a possible witch cast out by the villagers.
Bessie Throckmorton, one of the real Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, is enamoured of Sir Walter Raleigh. Sadly she has misplaced a love-letter from Raleigh and worries in case Her Majesty has discovered it. Raleigh’s rival for Good Queen Bess’s favours is the Earl of Essex who has acquired the letter from Jill-All-Alone. He plans to use it against Raleigh. A subplot involves Walter Wilkins, a travelling player, who is writing a musical piece about Saint George and the Dragon for the Queen and Essex. Complications ensue when Raleigh is banished from Court and Bessie is locked up in Windsor Castle.
The great strength of Merrie England is that it is full of rich characters deftly drawn with great potential for comedy. Much of the piece is dominated by Wilkins in a very smart performance by Daniel Cane. This is a wonderful piece of comic writing about a thespian strongly modelled on Shakespeare and written in Shakespearian style. The minor characters, a battalion of villagers including a butcher, a baker, a tinker and a tailor, resemble the Rude Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Queen Elizabeth I, Virge Gilchrist arrives in great fashion but also in a state of vagueness, more like Joanna Lumley as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. Even if she’s not quite the nutter as portrayed by Miranda Richardson in Blackadder (second series), it’s a close-run thing. Most of the comedy occurs through confrontations between the characters in semi-farcical situations.
Musically Merrie England is well-stocked with solos, duos and choruses of real merit. Some notable songs have weathered the years and survived, the most famous being ‘Who were the yeomen of England?’ and ‘O peaceful England’. Eamonn O’Dwyer provides a skilful keyboard accompaniment, bringing out the nuances of the score to full effect.
Far from being a slavishly tub-thumping salute to British royalty, Merrie England provides a comic view of the peasants and the nobility, and sends-up everybody in the process. Alex Sutton’s cast of eighteen works their doublets and hose off on the tiny Finborough stage in a well-costumed piece that uses simple but effective sets by Philip Lindley to evoke the period, the town and the forest of Windsor.
It’s hard to fathom why Merrie England went out of fashion when much of Gilbert & Sullivan remains popular. It could be time for a revival by one of the main opera companies. Opera South staged a production early this year in Haslemere, with a libretto updated to the present Queen’s Coronation year. However, it is strong enough to stand on its own without any unnecessary fixing. Merrie England is a very pleasant discovery and all power to the Finborough Theatre for presenting it.
- Merrie England is at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
- Performances on 3, 4, 5, 10, 11 & 12 June: Sunday & Monday at 7.30 p.m., Tuesday at 2 p.m.
- Tickets at £14.00 & £18.00 bookable on 0844 847 1652
- Finborough Theatre