After the all-but unqualified triumph of Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, hopes were high for Hampstead’s next big première, and on paper, every ingredient looked promising; a fascinating subject, namely the foundation of the Glyndebourne opera house in Sussex and the idiosyncrasies of its founder, John Christie; a top-notch playwright in David Hare; the acclaimed Jeremy Herrin directing; and two of the best actors working today, Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll. That the result is a let-down comes as a grave disappointment, all the more so because the entire run has been sold out on the strength of its creative team. Another West End transfer? Though not impossible, it does not seem especially likely.
The biggest problem with Hare’s play is that, unlike his best work, it seems curiously inessential. The story of Christie, his wife Audrey Mildmay (the ‘moderate soprano’ of the title) and his brilliantly quixotic desire to build an opera house essentially in his back garden – the English Bayreuth, if you will – is an interesting one, especially given the sheer oddness of Christie himself, a decorated WW1 veteran who read poetry to his men before battle. Yet Hare delivers the play over a confusing range of times and years, zig-zagging back and forth with little apparent point. If anything, it short-changes the excellent work of Allam (near-unrecognisable and toning down his natural louche charisma in a bald wig and glasses) and Carroll, making what ought to be a grand tragic love story feel fragmented and unsatisfying.
Another flaw of the play is that Hare – so adept usually at writing witty, incisive dialogue – has great chunks of exposition either delivered by the cast directly to the audience or to each other. An early scene involves a conversation between Christie, Mildmay and three exiled Germans who he is attempting to lure to run Glyndebourne. It lasts apparently forever, and the quality of the writing seldom rises above ‘You know this…you also know this’. If this had been written by an unknown playwright, it seems likely that any theatre would have returned it with copious notes about streamlining the narrative and being clearer about the story that had to be told; however, for Sir David, such considerations do not apply.
This isn’t a disaster in the mould of Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. It’s entertaining enough, and lifted several notches by Allam and Carroll, who could read the telephone directory to each other and still manage to create both a humorous sense of a genuinely loving marriage and of the fear of mental and physical disintegration. But I wonder if it would have been better served as a BBC2 or BBC4 90 minute drama, where a visual scale above people talking in a drawing room might have given it greater impetus, and where some of its grand themes – the civilising influence of art; the horrors of Nazi regime; the exuberant folly of pursuing an idea, whatever the cost. As it is, Hare’s The Moderate Soprano has to be regarded as a very moderate play.
The Moderate Soprano at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Ave, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 3EU, until 28th November 2015. For more information visit the website.