"Scorn the sweetmeats of temptation!", warns Lady Billows, as the village of Loxford gathers to crown its May King – a King, because so many village maidens have failed to resist those sinful sweetmeats that a Queen simply cannot be crowned this year. But Albert Herring, who lives with his mother, works in her shop and has never been known to transgress in the slightest degree, is universally pronounced a shining example of chastity – to his horror. Director Liam Steel keeps Britten's rural comedy in its early 1950s setting, and the moral milieu feels so perfect for this plot that one wonders whether it could ever work as well in any other; Britten's librettist Eric Crozier translated the prurient parochialism of early 19th century France, the setting for Guy de Maupassant's original novella, with unflinching wit.

Nick Pritchard (Albert) © Chris Christodoulou
Nick Pritchard (Albert)
© Chris Christodoulou

Designs by Anna Fleischle show us a classic English country village straight out of a Miss Marple in two key locations, the church hall and the (scrumptiously cute) village shop; and, like any good Miss Marple, Loxford is positively seething with gossip, prejudice, and hypocrisy under its complacent surface. Against Fleischle's superbly nostalgic interiors, complete with period posters, faded FIRE EXIT signs, folding chairs, flowers and bunting, Steel introduces a silent Outsider, played by actor Michael Taylor Moran, who stalks the streets of Loxford with cool nonchalance, smoking thoughtfully in dark corners and upsetting the smug cabal of Lady Billows' Committee by his mere existence. Albert is at first frightened, then fascinated by him; and when he finally makes his bid for social, moral and sexual freedom, we are left in no doubt that it is this Outsider he has gone to find (though whether for sheer friendship, or for an erotic encounter, is left tastefully opaque).

The Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra, conducted by Michael Rosewell, make a gorgeous sound: warm and full of different textures. As well as the jokes in the opera’s plot and libretto, and the laughs keep on coming, there are also jokes in Britten’s score: the Tristan chord as Sid adds alcohol to Albert’s drink came through with melodramatic fervour, rousing a familiar chuckle across the audience. Singing throughout the company is lyrical, articulate and beautifully clear: there is not a weak link in this cast. Very occasionally the orchestra overwhelms the vocal line, but this is swiftly corrected.

Nicholas Morton (Sid) and Angela Simkin (Nancy) © Chris Christodoulou
Nicholas Morton (Sid) and Angela Simkin (Nancy)
© Chris Christodoulou
Nick Pritchard is a joy as Albert Herring. At first shy and subdued behind his shop counter, Albert gets defensive when Sid challenges him about the lack of fun in his life; some early restraint in Pritchard's performance here soon pays off in spades. Pritchard is the picture of embarrassment in Albert's coronation scene, almost crying with shame and anger in a white dress; we feel this experience becomes a crisis of Albert's life, just as much a catalyst of his final rebellion as the rum with which Sid spikes his lemonade. His final, vibrant defiance of Lady Billows, the village in general and his Mum in particular makes you want to punch your seat with joy. Nicholas Morton's handsome Sid breathes bravado and charisma, immediately taking control of his scenes, and sharing sizzling stage chemistry with Angela Simkin as an appealing Nancy. The friendship, as well as the attraction, between these two young lovers highlights the joy of true love, as opposed to the dull bitterness of conforming to propriety.

Janis Kelly is an elegant treat as Lady Billows, a brilliant balance of the esteemed grande dame who rules her village with the flick of an eyebrow, and a tired old lady who secretly knows the world she nostalgically longs for no longer exists – if, indeed, it ever did. Polly Leech is wonderful as her ferocious, tense secretary Florence Pike, who keeps an encyclopaedia of village gossip in lever arch files, and disqualifies maiden after maiden with acid disapproval. Amy Lyddon shows herself to be a brilliant character actress as Mrs Herring, hectoring over Albert with real aggression, and lacing her own lemonade with vodka on the sly: the last survivors of Albert's coronation party are Mrs Herring and Lady Billows, getting slaughtered together in the darkening church hall, all pretences gone, all hypocrises exposed.

Julien van Mellaerts simpers deliciously as Mr Gedge the vicar, providing some of our finest moments of humour as he flirts ever more obviously with Natasha Day, glamourous and prim as Miss Wordsworth. Matt Buswell is a bashful, believable Superintendent Budd, sure of his work, yet still socially insecure. Joel Williams is suitably smarmy as the Mayor, Mr Upfold, who we discover has a dark, unchaste secret of his own.

Natasha Day (Miss Wordsworth) with Rowan Pierce (Cis), Max Todes (Harry), Catriona Hewitson (Emmie) © Chris Christodoulou
Natasha Day (Miss Wordsworth) with Rowan Pierce (Cis), Max Todes (Harry), Catriona Hewitson (Emmie)
© Chris Christodoulou

Our trio of schoolchildren are a gleeful riot: Max Todes, still a schoolboy himself, plays Harry with an aptly "Just William" air of mischief, while undergraduate Rowan Pierce and graduate Catriona Hewitson give Cis and Emmie girlish charm.

****1