In the mixed bag that is Tête à Tête, you always get at least one well-intentioned flop. they heavily vanish is a prime example. The title is an excerpt from one of Shakespeare’s own stage directions: an elegant bit of magpie borrowing. The piece is intended as “a sustained homage to the words of The Tempest”: a perfectly valid idea. Shakespeare’s words are, of course, wonderful and The Tempest sees him in near-hallucinatory mode; moreover, The Tempest is the most overtly music-focused of all his plays, and the one which most directors have spent time attempting to musically reconstruct. Plus, it’s got magical spirits who sing and dance, a bunch of people wandering around in total confusion, a love story, a bit of vengeance, moral reawakenings and lashings of mild peril. Entirely ripe, you would think, for a bit of operatic treatment.

You would think. And yet, they heavily vanish never really lifted off. We began without singing at all, but some spoken lines being read out from pages held in the hand: lines, it seemed, had not been learnt. The spoken lines were delivered by actors with overacted flourish, but not much skill, being almost shouted at us rather than skilfully projected. We then got some wordless scraps of singing, followed by often inarticulate words (any homage to the words not convincing). And as the piece continued with clashing volumes and unsympathetic pacing, the relationship between speech and song remained uneven and conflicted. An under-rehearsed air persisted; there was very little consensus of dramatic conviction on stage, and while people were trying hard, they were doing so alone.   

Sometimes the company would chant spoken lines together: reading from the page, again, their effect was as dreary as bored schoolchildren learning lines by rote on a wet Friday afternoon. The design, which put some performers in yellow sou-westers, others in orange tabards, and gave a few them some torches to flash around the room, really didn’t merit the name: a couple of swags of plastic sheeting didn’t express anything in terms of staging. The St Pancras Room is a classroom-like windowless space, and not the most natural crucible for drama, but it is possible to do more with it than this. By the time a small projection of bees hovering over flowers appeared on the back wall for “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”, it felt too late.  The more rambling it became, the more pretentious it felt.

The actors were not credited by name in the programme except as part of The Blackburn Company, but we had at least two unnamed actors performing. One acted as a kind of narrator, but had an unfortunate tendency to over-articulate, which gave his performance a patronising tone; the other for some mysterious reason had to remove his sou’wester at one point and parade around the stage in his pants, looking mournful. I did feel warm relief on his part when he was allowed to dress again; there was no detectable aesthetic justification in the words or the music for this pointless semi-nudity. Actors also sometimes drank glasses of water, again for reasons that remained opaque. The very linear, semi-shouted delivery of one of Prospero’s great soliloquies fell flat as a stone.

Alongside the Blackburn Company were Ensemble Lagan, our instrumentalists, who on the whole were better. Sopranos CN Lester and Felicity Hayward sang “Where the bee sucks” with delicate animation to a pretty tune by Danyal Dhondy, and their wordless singing was at least harmonious. The skeletal instrumentation fitted the small space: clarinettist Sophie Cotton and Tony Hawks on viola navigated their way through the score tastefully. Timothy Lewis Thornton, who had composed the music and arranged the words, sounded superbly accomplished on the piano, playing with an intelligent touch. But the results remained uninspiring.

This is a work in progress, and the concept isn’t inherently doomed. It just doesn’t work for an audience, even a patient and forgiving one, in this scrappy, formless incarnation. Hopefully the next incarnation will evolve further.