MUSIC / Many a slip: The Poisoned Chalice - The Drill Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
It still isn't safe out there in the world of new opera. At the big companies, the flops have outweighed the hits for decades. You even get used to Opera Factory's special feeling for a dud premiere. But a confident, no-nonsense group like Music Theatre London, the one that brought you the city-brokers' Traviata and thrives on vivid, stage-musical directness - surely they will have what it takes to back a winner . . . won't they?

The Poisoned Chalice (fateful title) is scripted and composed by Tony Britten, MTL's regular arranger, conductor and translator. It deals with the entanglements of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Morgan le Fay in the declining days of the Round Table, and is set for four each of singers and players: flute, cello, keyboards, and percussion. At just over 90 minutes (including interval) it tells its tale clearly and modestly, with an economy matched in Simon Higlett's designs - unfussy 'ancient' costumes, a raked circular acting area, and a skeletal blue tree that has shed its pink leaves, neatly fitted into the Drill Hall's close-up, welcoming space.

Britten has even given it a score in a plain, broadly melodic language, firmly structured with easily recognisable themes. The prologue feels promising, expectant Baroque rhythms announcing a Britten-ish (Ben, that is) unison for the cast before flowering into added-note chords. Yet 10 minutes in, the show is still ambling along in neutral, and for the rest of the way it so patently fails to move into gear that you wonder why nobody applied the breaks before it passed the point of no return.

But the problem runs deeper than pacing. The musical lines don't bring the words to life or differentiate the characters, they rarely allow feeling to expand, and they have in any case an excess of work to do. Despite the opera's brevity, it has too much talk and not enough deeds, and there is little Nicholas Broadhurst, the stage director, can do about it except move the actors about and put a bit of gusto into the odd sword-swings.

It does have its moments, not just the choruses but the makings of a good song for Guinevere at the start of Act 2, with a strong build to Lancelot's arrival. But it's not enough to shake the cast out of what sounds like a chronic depression. The two women, Mary Lincoln (Guinevere) and Sara Jungberg, deliver sweetly and accurately; Andrew C Wadsworth (Arthur) and Billy Hartman are less confident and fluent, and often seem as if they would be happier speaking their lines. 'How glad I am to close this chapter of my life,' sings Lancelot after one of his encounters. Quite. Here's a company that brings freshness and flair to much-played classics by daring to be unashamedly stagy. Give it a new work and it goes all operatic and respectful, and loses the chief quality that makes its performances so distinctive and vital. Call it a learning experience, and look forward to the next show.

To 29 Oct (071-637 8270)