"Monsieur Offenbach regularly composes three waltzes before lunch, a mazurka after dinner, and four galops[sic] between the two meals" - so wrote France’s waltz-king pseudonymously about himself. Full marks to Garsington for reviving one of the less-performed of his twenty operettas.
The plot of ‘La Perichole’ - which premiered in London in 1875 in a double-bill with Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury’ - is broad farce. Street-singers Piquillo and La Perichole are in love but can’t afford a marriage licence; smitten by the girl’s beauty, the all-powerful Viceroy tempts her into his harem with offers of food, but since for that she must be legally ‘married’, a husband is sought, who turns out to be her paramour. Drink fuels the ensuing confusion in which Piquillo is dragged down to a dungeon reserved for recalcitrant husbands, but the truth comes out and all ends well.
Offenbach’s thinly-veiled purpose was satire. The story may be set in 18th-century Peru, but his target was the lecherous hypocrisy of Napoleon III and his court; it all slipped down a treat, thanks to its irresistible melodies and Gallic charm. But such seemingly simple material is not easy to transplant, as Rory Bremner found when he tried unsuccessfully to Anglicise and update Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus’ last year.
For ‘La Perichole’, Jeremy Sams translates and directs his own show, but his intentions are cloudy. Francis O’Connor’s set is picturesque in a Hispanic sort of way, and the strenuously-choreographed routines of the populace have a music-hall tinge; Geoffrey Dolton’s Viceroy is a satisfying pantomime villain, but Naomi O’Connell’s Perichole – playing up to Robert Murray’s appealing Piquillo - is so prosaically hard-bitten that even that qualified suspension of disbelief required for farce is out of the question.
I spent the first two acts trying to work out why the efforts of the cast were failing to spark with the audience. Was it the forced jollity of the direction, or the fact that the rhyming libretto was flippant rather than witty? Events designed to be side-splittingly funny went off like damp squibs; songs and dances which should have been bewitching weren’t. Only in the third act did things take off, and that was because three performers with impeccable comic timing were given their head - Dolton, Walter van Dyk as a randy old prisoner, and the Protean Simon Butteriss.