Thursday, May 01, 2003


Well, it’s all over the hoardings, initial reviews are ecstatic, and it’s being described as ‘London’s hottest ticket’ by the newspapers. The mixture of high art culture and lo-life street smart (or should that be stoopid?) is clearly hard to resist. All it needs is a few Good Taste pickets. Anyway, Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ is at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre until 30 August 2003 (extended from 5 July), so you have plenty of time to find out what the fuss is all about.

JS-TO began life as a workshop production at the Battersea Arts Centre in 2001, when composer Thomas famously bought cans of beer for members of the audience in exchange for their script ideas. In truth, he says, not much of value was forthcoming. But plenty of booze went down, and publicity began to roll in for his ‘How To Write An Opera About Jerry Springer’ evenings. The next step involved developmental performances of the work as part of BAC’s annual Opera Festival; then a high profile stint at the Edinburgh Festival (under new management, and minus some of the original stars, like the irrepressible Adey Grummet); and now it sits on to the cusp of the West End. Of the principals, only Lore Lixenberg remains from the BAC days. Some of the early National publicity cheekily talked about a ‘world premiere’. But by all accounts JS-TO has lost little of its initial shock and awe.

I haven’t seen the Lyttleton production, but I was delighted by the low-tech, high quality performance in Battersea last year. Working with playwright Stewart Lee, Thomas has combined a witty, cunning and exuberantly well-written score with a foul-mouthed libretto of masterful, comedic noire. Bach-like chorales, Handelian flourishes, swing, high opera mannerisms and pure vaudeville blend together… well, as if they were meant to, in some alt, po-mo universe. The first act utilises the standard Jerry Springer Show format, with the ‘audience’ brilliantly cast in the role of Greek Chorus, and a litany of trailer terrors soloing and duetting their weird hearts out. The twist before the curtain means that the second act takes place at the gates of hell, with Satan, Jesus and Eve trying to figure out what went wrong and who, exactly, is responsible. Can Jerry survive intact? You’ll have to find out yourself…

As must be evident, this is music theatre at its most creative (OK, outrageous), rather than ‘opera as such’. But it breathes new life into the form nonetheless. It also succeeds, for the most part, in being a morality tale devoid of moralism, and an ironic poke-in-the eye without the snide. The score and lyrics are littered with delicious literary and pop culture illusions, sly musical jokes, and camp pastiche. I’m told that because the second act was less popular with the critics in Edinburgh, publicists Avalon – whose brutal reputation has put something of a shadow on things – encouraged cuts and a new, post-curtain dance scene. The danger was always that an artfully dangerous invention might be compromised by West End saccharine. It’ll be interesting to see where JS-TO ends up… Meanwhile, reviews galore.

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