Hampstead & Highgate Festival – That Man Stephen Ward

Stay Well; My Ship; Bilbao Song; Surabaya Johnny; Mack the Knife; Speak Low
Cabaret Songs – Johnny; Funeral blues
That Man Stephen Ward [World premiere]

Yvonne Fontane (mezzo-soprano)
Simon Lane (piano)
Andrew Slater (bass-baritone)
Peter Edwards, Jason Key & Emily North (actors)

Hampstead & Highgate Festival Ensemble [Kathryn Thomas (flute), Catriona Scott (clarinet), Katherine Jenkinson (cello), Simon Lane (piano & keyboards) & Ben Fullbrook (percussion)]

Yvonne Fontane – Director
George Vass – Music Director
Alison Porter – Stage Manager
Andrew Trinick – News reports recording & realisation

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 11 May, 2008
Venue: The Lund Theatre, University College School, Frognal, London NW3

A tight black dress with a sexy slit down the side; scarlet lips and vibrant eyes; a lithe body, an undulating waist and inviting footwork; a vivid red scarf (swaying nonchalantly across the neck, coquettishly across the shoulders, scrunched over the waist or lying on the floor until next needed); a grand piano: all these constitute the stock in trade of a cabaret artiste. The air crackled with promise for an electric routine.

Yvonne Fontane as 'Carmen' in a Stowe Opera production. ©2004 John CredlandWe had drama – over-the-top, operatic. Song after song bared a bleeding heart, thrust loudly and flamboyantly in our faces – without, as yet, a great smoothly-soaring voice to match. Clearly, Yvonne Fontane is passionate for Weill. Her singing strove with every fibre of its being to express that passion. Her engaging spoken introduction to each song showed her affection for his music. Yet, in her searing, intense eagerness to put him on view, she betrayed him, portraying him as broad, loud, unsubtle, not-ironic and not-wry. Weill’s women are not divas from nineteenth-century melodramas, throwing themselves off battlements while emitting stirring laments, maddened by grief. (I am passionate for Weill, too.)

Less is more. Listen to Lotte Lenya or Judy Kaye. Listen to the so-evidently present heartbreak in each soft-voiced reprise during Lenya’s ‘Surabaya Johnny’. Listen, indeed, to the high-spot of this selection of Cabaret Songs: the gothic wit of an English language version of ‘Mack the Knife’. This was a true collaboration between Fontane, Weill and Brecht – restrained, alive and mordant. It was thrilling – and chilling.

Two other moments stay with me: sudden, understated interpolations of a fragment of beautifully spoken German, in ‘Speak Low’ and ‘Surabaya Johnny’. Both briefly lifted the tone of the Weill display to its proper height. Simon Lane accompanied agreeably and amiably, in English fashion. The two Britten songs were somewhat less remarkable escapades.

In its own way, “That Man Stephen Ward” was adventurous, both in subject and treatment. Dave Norris’s script was intelligent and conversational, homing-in on the growing isolation of a gregarious, promiscuous socialite – a man who was self-obsessed yet lacking in self-insight.

A heavy responsibility lies on the shoulders of whoever plays Stephen Ward. He must remember an hour-long text and sing it; he must use a sort of conversational sprechgesang devoid of melody; he must switch into a cabaret routine at the drop of a hat or deliver an embryonic aria; he must execute a neat side shuffle and a comedy routine; he must massage a client; he must experience his high-born contacts deserting him one by one; he must express hope where there is none. Finally, he must take an overdose, recognising that to hope any longer is hopeless.

Andrew Slater. Photograph: andrew-slater.comTriumphantly, Andrew Slater undertook all these responsibilities and more. I doubt that the character he created bore much resemblance to the real-life Stephen Ward. That is immaterial. In a performance, singing neutrally and almost hoarsely, he became the Ward that Dave Norris had created in his script. Peter Edwards, Jason Key and Emily North effectively evoked those clients and contacts who became less and less real to Ward as they slipped away from his efforts to maintain a grip on their usefulness to him.

Thomas Hyde uses the instrumental ensemble in several ways. For the most part, he seemed to be devising a spasmodic internal monologue in counterpoint to Slater’s external dissertation. Snatches of notes, impersonal and angular, appeared and cackled occasionally, often sounding inapposite to action elsewhere – soundbites which were not quite commentary. Plucked piano and tinkled keyboards suggested a life wrenched out of ‘normality’. Occasional individual interpolations from flute, clarinet and cello suggested a particular significance perhaps clear only to Hyde, representing some aspects of his inner life. The Ensemble and Slater came together delightfully in the cabaret sections. (Slater was so much at ease here that I found myself wishing that Fontane had given him more to do.)

Hyde did not seek to create an overblown drama out of this tawdry decline. Good – the material didn’t ask for it. The music did become a little more stately and sober. The cello had an extended solo – a melodic valediction and cadenza from Ward perhaps. As a performance, “That Man Stephen Ward” was engrossing. As a liaison between modernist and tradition, conversational and lyrical, inner and outer, comic and serious, the individual and the world (background news items cover the Cuban missile crisis, relevant to two of Ward’s contacts – Profumo and Ivanov), acting and singing, it is commendably exploratory.

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