Theatre review: Gabriel, Shakespeare's Globe, London


You have to admire the producing chutzpah of Shakespeare's Globe. In the same week that they announced a 2-year tour of Hamlet that will take in every country on earth (all 205 of them), they have opened this unclassifiable delight.

Star trumpeter Alison Balsom expressed a wish to perform at the Globe and artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, put her in touch with dramatist Samuel Adamson. The result is Gabriel, a witty, bewitching entertainment that celebrates the genius of Purcell, the expressiveness of the natural valveless trumpet and the bawdy energies of the “noisily Protestant England” of the 1690s in the wake of Glorious Revolution. 

Purcell himself never appears as a character but his creative presence pervades and links Adamson's playlets which, mixing fact and fiction, whisk us from the court to playhouse to the Thames where Sam Cox's waterman, Francis Taylor, is the droll counterpart of the modern London cabbie, bragging about how “I've had that Henry Purcell in my boat. Sat right where you are”. 

The Shores, a family of real-life virtuoso trumpeters, are shown coming to blows over the instrument's potentialities, with the boozy black sheep Bill (excellent Trevor Fox) deriding the defection of his younger brother John from the battlefield to the theatre and “soft exotic notes for soft exotic eunuchs”. Like the childless Queen's ill-fated, hydrocephalic nephew, William (Joshua James) who would not live to see his twelfth birthday, Bill is addicted to the rousing martial qualities of the trumpet. But this show – in which Balsom magnificently supplies John's “playing” – is a rich demonstration of the instrument's yearning reach and the adaptability of its sweetness and strength for all the major occasions in life, from cradle to grave. 

With the English Concert pouring forth a luscious feast of baroque music from their on-stage dais, Dromgoole's captivating production is full of fearless, disarming shifts between the rudely earthy and the divinely ethereal. One moment, the trumpet is a brazenly phallic symbol in a ribald romp, the next it is exquisitely weaving with the counter-tenor voice in a ravishing rearrangement of “Sound the Trumpet” from one of Purcell's birthday odes for Queen Mary. 

Jessie Buckley splendidly doubles as Arabella Hunt, the lesbian singer, once briefly married to a woman, who found celibate sanctuary as a favourite court-performer for the teasing monarch, and (hilariously) as Kate, one of the quartet of quarrelsome thesps whose entanglements mirror those of their characters in The Fairy Queen. A delectable departure for the Globe.

To 18 August; 0207 401 9919