Rowan Pelling: At the trailer-trash opera, where Kylie told Stan that she's really a man

Monday 07 April 2014 06:19

It wasn't, on the face of it, my idea of a stellar evening out: a workshop production of a chat-show-/opera. But Tom Morris, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre (and brother of Chris as in Brass Eye), was brimming with enthusiasm for his new show. It seemed churlish to be deterred by the fact that his invitation combined two pet hates, south London and fringe theatre. Last time I combined the two I disgraced myself. My friend Shuna was playing Henry Purcell's wife in a play about the composer. She had to step onstage cradling a bloodied bundle of rags and say, "My babies, all dead – dead – all my dead babies." At this point I was overcome by a fit of giggles so bad that I had to stuff my shirtsleeve in my mouth. Clearly I wasn't grown-up enough for this kind of enterprise.

Luckily, Kombat Opera's production of Jerry Springer: the Opera is magnificently lacking in maturity, so it hit my level nicely. Instead of dead babies you get an adult American male who gets off on soiled diapers, or a hillbilly member of the Ku Klux Klan who harbours a much worse secret: "I prefer flowers to people." It is a work of utter comic genius. The concept is brilliantly simple. The libretto is drawn pretty much verbatim from Jerry Springer's real-life chat-show, but, with the exception of the actor playing Jerry, every exchange is sung with the idiom and musical sincerity of classical opera. The collision of low sentiment and high culture creates a tidal wave of comic energy.

The show opens with a chorus of trailer-trash who form the show's "audience" singing "J-e-rr-rr-y" with the fervour of a messianic requiem. Better still are the guests who spew their traumas and peccadillos as heartfelt arias. Gormless Charlene sings to her love-cheat boyfriend, Dwight: "I remember when we was young, we was full of hope, until we got addicted to crack and dope." A statuesque blonde, Kylie, reveals to her lover, Stan, that she's really a man, at which the chorus trill in shocked delight, "Chick with a dick!" Sadly, most lines are too profane to repeat in a family newspaper. The chorus is particularly foul-mouthed, bigoted and true to life, deriding a bisexual as a "faggot-loser", a lap-dancer as a "strip-slut", and everyone else as "assholes". It's opera, but not as we know it.

The first-night audience watched with a palpable sense of rapture. It was good to see Chris Morris among them, keeping up with bad taste everywhere – though the opera had even more to recommend it than low-rent laughs. The singing and direction are excellent. The music, composed by Richard Thomas, makes sly nods at everyone from Mozart to Sondheim, while holding its own as an original composition, and the libretto embraces every modern malaise going. Take celebrity-itis: the central refrain goes, "This is a Jerry Springer moment, we don't want this moment to end, so cover us in chocolate and throw us to the lesbians."

I had that rare, tingling feeling that I was witnessing something about to fly. I'd be amazed if the fully realised show doesn't become a West End hit, doing for opera what Adventures in Motion Pictures' Swan Lake did for ballet. When you look at it, there's little difference between the triangular relationship at the centre of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and the Springer opera's threesomes. Rosenkavalier's male lead, Octavian, is a man dressed as a woman, played by a woman, so it all comes down to chicks with dicks.

Inspired, I started to dream up similar ventures. EastEnders, for example, as a country and western musical, with Dolly Parton a ringer for Peggy Mitchell. You can just see her singing in plaintive, bell-like tones, "You're a slag Pat Butcher – you always were and you always will be." Crimewatch, meanwhile, could breathe new life into pantomime. When Nick Ross asks, "Have you seen this man?" the audience can shout, "He's behind you." And I'm keen on a Kabuki version of the porn classic Deep Throat. All-male casts mean you can't be accused of degrading women, and there's at least one foreign market sorted.

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