Shakespeare’s Globe is currently hosting playwright Samuel Adamson’s Gabriel, described as “an entertainment with trumpet”. Alison Balsom, the internationally recognised trumpeter and creative producer of this show, presented musical extracts from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, King Arthur and Dioclesian, along with many other odes and songs by Purcell and other Baroque composers.

Richard Riddell; Amanda Wilkin; Jessie Buckley; Matthew Raymond © John Haynes
Richard Riddell; Amanda Wilkin; Jessie Buckley; Matthew Raymond
© John Haynes

Adamson describes this work of short sketches with musical interludes as an orchestral concert, not a play, and as “a very exciting meeting of classical musicians and actors, a sort of rowdy sing-along telling the stories of 17th-century life”. Upon reflection I would have to disagree: the music seemed of little importance and served more as a quick break during changes in set.

The sketches depicted life under the reign of Queen Mary through the eyes of court musicians, watermen, wigmakers, prostitutes and monarchs, including their struggles with their careers and their family feuds. Music was used in between each sketch to introduce the next scene – a couple in front of me described it as a “Baroque pantomime”. The English Concert were not only used as musicians, but had acting and singing parts as well. The actors also doubled as singers throughout, some playing court trumpeters who were not actually required to play.

This being my first visit to the newly-refurbished Globe, I was astonished at how realistic the auditorium felt. The lobby, being very modern with big glass windows, is a great contrast to the historically-accurate building. When stepping into the auditorium, my breath was taken away by how beautiful the scenery was. I can see why the Globe were so keen on continuing the upkeep of this building.

From the offset, The English Concert (all on period instruments) had a very strong acoustic to work with – a benefit to some instruments but not so much others. Balsom’s trumpet playing was beautifully warm and glided through the air, soothing the audience – unlike much trumpet playing, which can sometimes hit you like a block of wood. The strings in the orchestra also benefited from the vast acoustic. However, some of the woodwind instruments – the oboe and bassoon in particular – struggled to cut through: perhaps they needed to push harder to keep up with the other instruments, as they were rarely heard at all.

Adamson and Balsom requested a lot from their musicians: not only did they play some very tricky music, all from memory and with no conductor, but they had to act and sing as well, which is not easy – the performances from the orchestra were very impressive.

Before the show began, Riddell introduced the trumpet as a “glorious instrument”, and for several more minutes discussed what it represented, causing me to think that there was going to be much more trumpet music than there turned out to be. This was disappointing, as Adamson had so clearly stated that this would be an orchestral concert featuring the trumpet, but Balsom was regularly off stage for up to 20 minutes at a time.

The script I would have to describe as historically accurate in its language, although sometimes brutal; given the number of children in the audience, some of the scenes made me quiver. The swearing was shocking and the nudity unexpected, using the trumpet in ways people only joke about. Advertised as a family show - and on the website as “saucy humour” – this seemed highly inappropriate.

On a different note, Jessie Buckley’s performance as Arabella the court singer had some intonation issues. In the extreme high and low registers, notes were not sustained due to lack of control. Despite this, she sounded natural, with a voice that was pure and unaggressive. Tenor Stephen Anthony Brown had complete control throughout the whole range of his voice; his entrances were smooth and undisturbed. A particularly lovely moment was when Balsom and Brown performed a beautiful piece together with harpsichord, the two voices graciously weaving through each other. The trumpet blended with the tenor voice impeccably both in quality and in phrasing.

I was unsure who was in charge of the music by the end. I was confused whether the leading was coming from Alison Balsom or violinist Sophie Barber. It wasn’t just me either: it was shockingly obvious at times that a few members of the orchestra didn’t know who was to bring off phrases, resulting in messy phrase endings – disappointing for a professional company. This was probably due to the lack of direct instruction from a conductor. The impression was that they were trying to be as natural in their performance as possible, but should they have risked it being messy?

The acting, however, was hugely entertaining, with actor after actor reeling off several minute-long monologues, with emotion bursting from their veins. There was real enthusiasm from all the cast, starting off with a superb introduction by John (Richard Riddell), whose powerful voice shot around the room like a bullet. Francis (Sam Cox) and William (Joshua James) were also admirably played characters.

However, if it wasn’t for the venue, this performance would not have carried through. The stories lost impact as the production went on, but as the sun went down and the lights came on, I saw the Globe at its most beautiful. Adamson definitely has Shakespeare’s Globe to thank for making his play an enjoyable, light-hearted evening’s entertainment.

***11