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Theatre: Running ahead of the pack

It's not easy being the composer for Gloria, the company that puts the muscle back into musicals. Nicolas Bloomfield has just had to turn a woman into a fox. By David Benedict
Who the hell is Gloria? Actually, no one. Gloria is a company that was founded in 1988 to produce the work of four artists: composer Nicolas Bloomfield, director / choreographer Leah Hausman, producer Simon Mellor and writer / director Neil Bartlett. Asked once about the vaguely perplexing title, Bartlett replied that it was named after a few of their favourite things: "Vivaldi's Gloria, Gloria Swanson... and how delicious it is to lift up the phone and say `Hello, Gloria'."

Flippant maybe, but also a neat description of the house style, mixing music and high theatricality, an almost baroque splendour undercut by a definite whiff of a gay sensibility. Starting with Lady Audley's Secret, they have gone on to create music-theatre pieces ranging from A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep and the award-winning Sarrasine to their 1994 sell-out production of The Picture of Dorian Grey.

Their choice of material, including a reworked Strauss opera, short stories by Jean Rhys and Guy de Maupassant and a rarely performed play by the 18th-century playwright Marivaux, reveals their intriguingly eclectic taste. One of their most successful works, the musical thriller A Judgement in Stone, was adapted from Ruth Rendell's crime novel. Anyone who saw it remembers the towering performance by Sheila Hancock. In Act 1 she had just 14 lines, six of which were a repeat of "I must get on". In the second act she fared little better with just one solo number at the end of the evening. Despite that, her frighteningly sullen, stubborn and riveting performance as the illiterate murderer Eunice Parchman dominated the entire evening.

Like much of their work, it was cast on the basis of a scenario, the script being written around the performers. Characters stepped out of the action to address the audience directly, thereby owning up to the theatrical nature of the work and making the audience intensely aware of the element of performance. One reviewer criticised its creators for being so in love with theatrical game-playing that the plot was given away at the beginning, thus ruining the show. He failed to realise that Rendell's opening sentence tells you both the crime and its perpetrator. Far from fooling around with the source for their own ends, theirs was a perfect example of remaining faithful to the spirit of the original while creating a theatrical rather than a doggedly literal aesthetic for the material. They clearly believe that you get closer to the heart by being seriously irreverent. (Rendell, it should be added, was delighted.)

Gloria's latest work, Lady into Fox, based on a novella by David Garnett, was referred to by Bartlett in his novel Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall. "It was completely fantastic; the story contained every deviation from the conventional storyline of marriage possible, yet was, in every detail, true and so in that sense not fantastic at all ... The lady in the story inexplicably turns, halfway through an ordinary day, into a bright- eyed vixen; the man in the story, equally inexplicably, remains faithful to her and loves her dearly even when she leaves him in order to raise a family with another animal and he even, in the end, goes mad with love for her."

They are not the story's only fans. Writing to Garnett, the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner recalled reading it aloud to two children who "sat listening like two owlets; and each evening they demanded that I should tell it again. On the last evening they had it almost by heart and I suppose that, back in the Portobello Road, they will tell it to their friends. So it is quite probable that you will turn into folklore."

The process of turning it into what they describe as "an intimate musical" is indicative of Gloria's working methods. As Bloomfield explains, "Neil first suggested it about two or three years ago but we didn't start working on it until last spring, when all four of us thrashed out the adaptation and the scenario." At this stage, he already had some preliminary sketches for the music. "Particularly the opening, which is unusual for me. It's partly to do with the cyclical nature of the story, which runs a year from January to January."

Bloomfield's score for piano and two voices - tenor Dale Rapley as Mr Tebrick and soprano Louise Gold as his wife, Sylvia - uses an impressive array of different forms. He went to the Royal Academy of Music on the accompanist's course and his sensitivity to balance and knowledge of the voice is very much in evidence. He dislikes categorising his music but, if pushed, concedes that there is a tension between the lyrical and tonal parts of the score and the "semi-tonal" passages which, he is anxious to point out, are none the less keybased. He switches between fully sung passages, accompanied and unaccompanied speech, Victorian parlour song, silent film-style soundtrack scenes and patter song. So what governs his choice of musical style?

"The first rule is not to set realistic speech such as `Would you like an egg?' I also knew that the fox must not sing until she is left alone by her husband. Not only is that dramatically right for the character, it also creates an interesting tension for the audience, who spend the first third of the show thinking `Is she just going to bark or repeat tiny bits of his phrases all night?' " He sees the piece very much as a trio, with the piano as a third, shifting voice. "Sometimes it supports, at other times it adds and duets. In many ways it's outside the action and what is happening in that claustrophobic little room."

Easy though it might be to distort the story into a simple allegory about captivity or sexuality or feminism, neither Garnett nor his adaptors have attempted to force a meaning upon it. Bloomfield acknowledges the links between this and The Turn of the Screw, his favourite Britten opera. Both are good ghost stories which remain inexplicable and he points to the dramatic strength of their ambivalence. "Britten stands back. The music doesn't dramatise specifically, it has a life of its own. It doesn't tell you what you should think, whose side you should be on." But if there are parallels with Britten, is this an opera rather than a musical?

"Do we care?" he sighs. "People have always found it difficult to compartmentalise Gloria's work. The problem is expectation. If we said it was an opera, it would conjure up something that was entirely music-led. My through- line here is operatic and there aren't set numbers as in traditional musicals but I've used all sorts of music hall and vaudeville elements." He ponders the question and then cheers up. "It's like a musical in that you really wouldn't want to hear it in a foreign language. Here the text is essential. It's incredibly important that music doesn't just sit around. It should always push the emotional line forward but what I think I've learnt is how to place music and text in order to carry the story."

n `Lady into Fox' is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London, W6 (0181-741 2311) to 20 April and then tours. Selections from Bloomfield's scores can be heard at the Brighton Festival on 23 May