The King’s Head Theatre in Islington is, as one might suspect from the name, in the back of a pub. Founded in 1970, it was the first pub theatre to open in London since Shakespeare’s time. Housed in a back room that used to contain a boxing ring, it is tiny: tightly packed seating for maybe 60 or 70 people and an unelevated stage, beginning where the seating stops. In 2010, Adam Spreadbury-Maher was announced as artistic director of the theatre, and his company OperaUpClose became resident there.

OperaUpClose, Tosca
OperaUpClose, Tosca

OperaUpClose was brought into the limelight by its highly successful production of Puccini’s La bohème, which ran for six months in 2009–10. Since then, it has produced new, English-translation versions of several well-known operas, such as Madam Butterfly, The Barber of Seville and Carmen. Its latest production is a new version of Puccini’s Tosca, with an English-language libretto by Spreadbury-Maher. Composer Danyal Dhondy has reduced the orchestral score to minimal instrumentation – a piano, cello and clarinet.

There were some things I liked about this new version, and others I didn’t. The church setting of the original was replaced by an East German lightbulb factory; the rationale behind this was unclear, but at least the storyline was generally kept intact. And there was some coherence between the setting (strip lighting, mustard-yellow and white walls, and cheap, mass-produced furniture) and the libretto: in place of the “Angelus” in the first act of the original was the communist anthem “The Red Flag”, and the “Te Deum” was omitted in this version. As per the original, Cavaradossi paints a picture which Tosca recognises as resembling Attavanti; he wore a tatty, paint-splattered suit, and, since the workers all wore khaki boiler suits, his role in the lightbulb factory was not clear (and who would be painting in a factory?). It was amusing to see the musicians also wearing boiler suits and blending into the set.

The standard of singing was generally good, though I felt that the volume and vibrato ought sometimes to have been toned down in such a small space. Demelza Stafford made a deliberately brash Tosca, dressed as she was in a tight, red dress and leopard-print faux fur coat. She and tenor Sheridan Edward (Cavaradossi) worked well together, with plenty of flirtation on stage. The full-on kissing and groping was perhaps a little too much, though, eliciting some rather embarrassed giggles from the audience. The balance between the pair when they were singing was excellent on the whole, but on occasion Tosca’s voice was relatively louder. Francis Church’s fine voice in the role of the calculating, odious villain Scarpia (here, the head of the Ministry of State Security Prison...) made him a love-hate character. The final member of the cast, Steven East, sang well, though his being cast as Caretaker as well as Angelotti and Spoletta was initially rather confusing – perhaps the roles, though individually small, ought to have been cast separately. The playing was excellent, though Dhondy’s drastic reduction of Puccini’s rich scoring was not so successful in conveying the emotion of the original score. Elspeth Wilkes was highly animated as pianist and conductor, whilst clarinettist Kimberly Ward and cellist Alison Holford managed some demanding passages with grace and ease.

The experience on the night was marred by a number of things, some of which could have been avoided; others of which were out of OperaUpClose’s control. The libretto was provided in the bizarrely ordered programme, but as the diction of the singers was generally good, it was not usually necessary to have reference to it. That said, the audience was plunged into blackness until the final scene, which made reading along impossible anyway. When I took the opportunity to read through it in the two intervals, I discovered several typographical and grammatical errors (even allowing for the fact that it was a transcription of spoken (sung) English, and hence not an exercise in writing perfect prose) – perhaps the editor, who was named in the programme, should have been more careful. An apparently real cigarette was lit and passed round the musicians at one point, which was more than a little gratuitous, and, especially in such a small room, unappreciated. This production of Tosca sadly does not live up to the very high standard set by La bohème – the concept is certainly a novel and interesting one, but it does not quite translate.