Last night’s press night at the Soho theatre ended with a rousing ovation and the unfamiliar sound of men in the first two rows boasting that they had sobbed their way through the final scene. Unusual perhaps, but with La Bohème’s story of broken hearts, possessive behaviour and a relentless sinister cough, it is hard to argue with their watery eyes.
After a sell-out six-month run at the Cock Tavern last year, Robin Norton-Hale’s modern day version of Puccini’s classic tragedy has found a new home at the Soho theatre, making its first foray into opera. The struggling artists of La Bohème become young Soho hipsters, living on bread from the Dean Street Sainsbury’s – “If it’s good enough for Jamie Oliver,” sings one character – and all the nutritional goodness of vodka and red wine.
The great love story follows Mimi, a delicate illegal immigrant, and the jealous, macho Rodolfo, who shares the bachelor flat where the first optimistic act takes place. Set on Christmas Eve in the boys’ worryingly realistic slovenly apartment, scattered with exhibition flyers, tobacco packets and a kitchen full of discarded bottles, Norton-Hale’s libretto has the pair falling in love while singing about cleaning people’s houses and forgetting to feed your meter.
The intimacy of the theatre is where this version of La Bohème, with characters singing about getting trashed and using the Guardian as a tablecloth, really creates its magic. The actors are able to take the exaggerated art of opera and combine its melodrama with the subtle emotions and expressions that such a small theatre requires.
Norton-Hale’s production uses the intimate relationship built with the audience to create hilarious chaos when the opera continues in the Soho theatre’s bar, the character’s stunning voices cutting through the packed venue and noisy passers by outside with an act that puts going to see opera on par with a rowdy night out. We have all had nights when an ex unexpectedly pops up to cause trouble; we have just never dealt with it in such a vocal way.
Set to the beautifully simple piano rehearsal version of Puccini’s score, played by Andrew Charity, this new, exciting take on a classic sits in a comfortable place between musical theatre and opera. With its tragic end and rollercoaster of emotions mixed with a subtle level of comedy and familiarity, Norton-Hale’s version impressively refuses to ever slide into cheap jokes and an abundance of modern references, instead losing none of the drama in translation and becoming an engrossing experience for opera buffs and opera virgins alike.