When, on the stage outside Garsington Manor, the Loxford bigwigs assemble in Lady Billows's house to elect the May Queen, recognition ripples through the audience, who realise that these characters are not so very distant.
The designer Jackie Brooks works wonders with the costumes. Character and status are neatly delineated through witty choices of sensible tweed skirts, wrap-around pinafores, polka-dots and a nicely grandiloquent fox- fur. Her sets are similarly pared down but, occasionally, a sense of boldness is missing. That too is the problem with the production. Underplayed, the piece is whimsy; overplayed, it's bad farce. Stephen Unwin concentrates on character and steers a middle course, coaxing excellent performances from his cast, but the echoes and pre-echoes of Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw are not just musical and some of the drama remains untapped. Sid and Nancy are light years away from their Sex Pistols counterparts, but a touch of their passion wouldn't go amiss when they sing (beautifully) of "refreshing ourselves in the pleasures of love". Similarly, the climactic threnody doesn't quite match the heartbreak of the writing. This is not the fault of the orchestral playing. Stephen Barlow's spry conducting is alive to every subtlety within Britten's sly textures and he elicits playing both robust and beautifully refined.
Pauline Tinsley is in gloriously imperious form as Lady Billows, and although Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts tightens towards the top of the register, he is entirely believable switching from innocence to suffering indignity. Patricia Boylan has a high old time as the mother of all mothers and Lynton Black is a powerful, superbly focused Superintendent Budd.
Garsington is, of course, the perfect location. The unscored birdsong only adds to an atmosphere as tart and delicious as Summer Pudding.
n Further performances 29 June, 7, 14 July (01865 361636)