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Published 22 July 2013

Gabriel. It’s a name that conjures such angelic thoughts. Quite a contrast, then, to Shakespeare’s Globe’s brilliantly bawdy and bittersweet new production.

That said, the live music is heavenly. It is also central to the show that grew from award-winning concert trumpeter Alison Balsom’s eagerness to find a lively environment in which to perform Purcell’s music on the natural trumpet.

Playwright Samuel Adamson, who is also working with Tori Amos on the National Theatre’s full blown modern musical The Light Princess, picked up Balsom’s idea and has created a 17th century London-set soap operetta. His vast jigsaw of characters slotting together as one mini play passes the brassy baton onto another, old threads occasionally reappearing later in the evening.

Each is a perfect vignette, mixing humour – sometimes of the most ribald nature – with a darker side.

The most humorous, in fact, can be the most heart-breaking, from Trevor Fox’s drunken letch Bill, who leaves you considering the appropriate uses for a brass instrument, to Sam Cox’s waterman, whose banter is easily recognisable to regular cab users, but has far reaching consequences.

Despite being set in the 1690s, the themes feel not just timeless, but modern. Yes, there are tangled love lives, familial jealousy and parental disappointment, but bullying and gay marriage also crop up in a tale, based on truth, about a singer, played with an aching sadness by former I’d Do Anything contestant Jessie Buckley, at the court of Queen Mary.    

That Balsom and musicians The English Concert don’t stand out is tribute to Dominic Dromgoole’s often witty direction. After five minutes the novelty of having them on stage dissolves as they melt into the action, seamlessly adding Purcell’s music and a dash of Handel to proceedings.

Before seeing Gabriel, the concept behind it flummoxed me; inspired by the trumpet, incorporating classical music, Balsom performing live, episodic stories. It was a gamble on the part of the Bankside venue. But they’ve won, as this unique production, where high art meets low humour, modernity runs through historical tales, wit gives way to heartbreak and Balsom’s trumpet sings out amid the friendly acoustics of this beautiful venue, deserves a fanfare.


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