Given that Ann Widdecombe spent her prime promoting Victorian attitudes to abortion and homosexuality, you could argue she has some atoning to do, and her self-reinvention certainly makes a start.
Going arse-over-tit in ‘Strictly’, she won hearts with her willingness to make a fool of herself; her recent role in the Dartford ‘Snow White’ showed what a good sport she has now become. And from panto to playing a pantomime dame in Donizetti is but a short step: no singing is involved, just the expression of outrage through exaggerated speech and gesture. A lifetime in Parliament, where pantomime behaviour is the norm, would seem ideal preparation for this.
As the dowager Duchesse de Crackentorp in ‘La file du regiment’, her job is theoretically simple: she has just two entrances, in which she must fix the world with a disapproving stare, and bark contemptuous phrases in bad French. Widdecombe’s first entrance drew the expected round of applause, and she efficiently mugged her way through the long violin obbligato before delivering lines specially tailored for the occasion: we got references to ‘Strictly’ and the Olympics before she swept out bellowing ‘Order, Order!’ But the strange thing was this: her performance was underpowered in comparison with the way Dawn French, the previous incumbent in this role, had dealt with things. French may be a larger lady, but what made her presence so much larger than life was her brilliant comic timing: between everyday staginess and professional stagecraft lies a gulf, and this was an object-lesson in the difference between them.
Other comparisons were equally inevitable with this revival of Laurent Pelly’s inspired production, in which Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay were the original dream team. Colin Lee’s tenor has a sweet fullness, and he can hit the high Cs, but he simply doesn’t have the Peruvian’s vocal and physical charisma; Patrizia Ciofi, though a fine singer, compares with Dessay in the same negative way. Meanwhile Christian Rath, the revival director, has somehow contrived to take all the edge off things: where the comedy was once pitch-perfect, it’s now baggy and overblown. But it’s good to see Chantal Thomas’s witty sets again, as it is to see the stalwart Ann Murray still making people jump, as the choleric Marquise de Berkenfeld.