What's this, a scene from Desperate Housewives? A suburban bedroom: the door to the en suite bathroom is ajar, the light on, a familiar overture playing on the radio, and the sound of gargling. Ablutions complete, a female form floats into view and with barely a cursory glance at the reclining, snoring figure in her marital bed, joins him. But this is no ordinary housewife. Desperate or not, this is La Belle Hélène and the face that launched a thousand ships has had better nights. At last the overture proper strikes up and Laurent Pelly's campy production of Offenbach's racy operetta is up, up, and away.
Did I say racy? Up, up, and away? Well, eventually. Following his well-sprung opening surprise, Pelly springs a second: the ancient Greeks arrive bearing floral tributes to a bemused Zeus: "This isn't a sacrifice, this is bloomin' Interflora!" There is talk of a shepherd boy with a French name (Paris, natch). La Belle Hélène's boudoir is potentially, indeed literally, a hot-bed of intrigue. As is Kit Hesketh-Harvey's revamped book - not so much a translation, more a re-write. Puns and in-jokes abound. Greek jokes come thick and fast: "Clearly lost his marbles - I blame Lord Elgin." It's a laugh a minute, or five. The pace is slack, not to say flaccid - and with Offenbach spreading his music very thinly and virtually handing over the reins to his librettists (Meilhac and Halévy) in this first act, you begin to wonder if this heartily perverse romp will ever, well, romp.
Part of the problem is the sheer size of the London Coliseum. A show conceived for the more intimate reaches of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris no longer finds the required immediacy. Everyone's so busy trying to reach the back row of the upper balcony that it's soon a case of death-by-declamation. Jokes don't so much land as levitate. It all seems like very hard work indeed. And still I wonder how audible, for instance, the star of the show - the elegant but rather soft-grained Felicity Lott - proves to be from the dress circle or above.
That said, Pelly's contemporary take on this tall tale of gods and mortals is not without its amusement. Helen's bed becomes quite literally a kind of tourist attraction, and once things hot up between her and her Troy-boy, and Offenbach starts pushing out the big numbers, there isn't too much silliness to which Pelly won't descend. Helen's "dream of love" with her mysterious shepherd boy is played out against a backdrop of canoodling sheep. There's a synchronised swimming ballet that rudely assumes a series of highly provocative sexual positions. And when Paris eventually returns as Aphrodite's augur his galley is, of course, a flying bedstead.
The cast are hard-working - too hard-working for the requisite lightness of touch to work its magic. The kings duly dominate, with David Kempster and Leigh Melrose giving stand-out performances as Agamemnon and Achilles, and Steven Page a sonorous Calchas, grand augur to Zeus. Toby Spence as Paris works the dialogue almost as strenuously as his pecs but sings with a wonderful sense of the French style. So does Lott, a handsome presence and a natural comic despite having to push beyond the comfort zone of that lovely sound. The conductor Emmanuel Joel seemed to be fighting the acoustic, too, anxious to keep the fizz without shaking the bottle but not always well co-ordinated with his gyrating chorus on stage.
Slightly heavy weather, then, but at least we know where the show's coming from. "Haven't you read your Iliad?" says Calchas to Paris. "No, I'm quite homophobic, actually." Oh, please.
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