Words: Simon Button; pictures: La Boheme at the The King's Head Theatre
I’m compelled to confess upfront that I know absolutely nothing about opera. Quite frankly, I don’t know an aria from my elbow and purists will probably shoot me down when I say the only operas I’m authoritative about are so-called rock ones like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy, plus the faux-operatic sections of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the You-Know-Where.
Still, I was drawn to Mark Ravenhill’s new take on Puccini’s classic La Boheme for several reasons.
Firstly, a listen to the Pavarotti recording on Spotify unearthed some exquisite music, even if it was all sung in Italian. Secondly, La Boheme was the inspiration for Jonathan Larson’s RENT, which for me ranks as one of the most electrifying shows of modern times.
Then there was the promise that the Mark Ravenhill-directed version at The King’s Head Theatre would not only be sung in English (with a libretto by David Eaton, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, and Philip Lee), it would also be “a contemporary queer reinvention” about the loves and losses amongst a bunch of struggling artists in present-day London.
Those aforementioned purists might balk at the very idea but the beauty of great art is that it’s open to constant reinterpretation. And I found Ravenhill’s La Boheme to be a fun, if flawed variation on the themes I at least know from RENT, if not from the original opera itself.
It’s a four-hander about two couples. Fiction writer Robin (Daniel Koek) meets Lucas through Grindr and they fall headfirst for each other, but the former’s possessiveness and jealousy begins to grind the latter down.
Lucas also has a drug problem, whilst Rob’s friend Marcus (Matt Kellett) can’t get over his flirty ex-girlfriend Marissa (Grace Nyandoro) who keeps coming back like a bad penny.
Musical director David Eaton tinkles away most impressively at the ivories and the cast is all in very fine voice indeed, although in the tiny King’s Head the vocals sometimes get bombastic and overpowering, especially when they’re all singing at the same time.
Having all but one of them in scrubs, just to facilitate a hospital-set opening and finale, is distracting, since none of them works in a hospital. Lucas goes by the online name of Mimi for reasons that are never explained.
And there’s a death scene that’s played with the actor’s back to the audience, thus robbing it of emotional impact.
Despite all of this, it’s opera at its most accessible, and the lyrics cleverly, comically ground the story in reality. There are references to Lidl, Uber, Chris Hemsworth, and Nobu, a very funny break-up song where one character sardonically sings “Goodbye to your snoring” and timely references to rising gas bills.
Poetic it isn’t but, breezing by at 85 minutes, pleasurable it sure is.
La Boheme is at The King’s Head Theatre, Islington, until 28 May. For more information visit kingsheadtheatre.com and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.