But that's another storey

The Palace In The Sky | Hackney Empire London
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The Independent Culture

Talk about thrills and spills: for a few ghastly minutes, I thought I'd have to write this event up on a news page. More of that anon, but first we must set the scene. Location, Frank Matcham's ornate Hackney Empire theatre; onstage, the girder-constructions and massed hard-hats of evolving Hackney. In the galleries, ranks of young black drummers, white OAP singers, Turkish saz-players, Salvation Army brass and primary-school choirs of this pullulating, bankrupt borough.

Talk about thrills and spills: for a few ghastly minutes, I thought I'd have to write this event up on a news page. More of that anon, but first we must set the scene. Location, Frank Matcham's ornate Hackney Empire theatre; onstage, the girder-constructions and massed hard-hats of evolving Hackney. In the galleries, ranks of young black drummers, white OAP singers, Turkish saz-players, Salvation Army brass and primary-school choirs of this pullulating, bankrupt borough.

Composer Jonathan Dove likes to set his works in unconventional places - Flight, televised last year, took place in a fictionalised Gatwick - and his community operas have encompassed Ashford rail link, Hastings pier, and Peterborough cathedral. But The Palace in the Sky is something else: its 300 performers - aged from four to 84 - include five separate groups of amateur instrumentalists plus a plethora of amateur choirs, in addition to top-flight players and singers from English National Opera.

A property tycoon wants to build a ziggurat on a wasteland patch: the locals are bemused, and an old-fashioned East-End godfather-figure puts a curse on the project. But the grand plan has flaws: the architect thinks the projected tower is too high, and the tycoon's opera-singer girlfriend wants to meddle. Gradually the curse takes effect, but in a strange way: like the inhabitants of the Tower of Babel, those who ascend the edifice find their speech disintegrating into nonsense.

Dove's score trades brilliantly on the variegated musical means at his disposal. Keel Watson, as the tycoon, was obviously battling a terrible cold, but Robert Tear's vibrant tenor contrasted pungently with a choir of teenage girls, and with the sallow timbre of the saz orchestra. South African soprano Sally June Gain extracted wonderful comedy from her part as the pampered diva; she also had enough charisma to follow a show-stopping Caribbean number with no sense of let-down. Architect Diana Moore's gorgeously open soprano rode effortlessly over a stage-full of hard-hats singing in counterpoint. The classical band in the pit - mostly tuned percussion - produced a lovely transparency of sound to foil the jazz and steel-bands on either side.

What came across most powerfully was sheer delight - the samba dancers, the OAPs mischievously pinching young male bottoms, the teenage girl scaffolders aping their butch male exemplars. And also realism: the body which tumbled out of the sky was a reminder of the facts of life on all such projects. When a 10ft panel suddenly cracked and fell a few minutes later, the realism seemed reinforced.

But this was real: it felled a teenage scaffolder, who lay inert. No panic, but the curtain came swiftly down. After five long minutes we were informed that "everyone was alright" and that business would soon resume; meanwhile, a band restored morale with some high-quality jazz.

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