A Shirley Valentine for opera audiences

Kit Hesketh-Harvey takes liberties with Offenbach’s La Belle Helene

Jokes don’t wear as well as music – which is why a lot of comic operetta isn’t comic any more. As years go by, the fun goes dead. It’s especially a problem in the works of Offenbach which, whatever their alleged subject matter, are really sending up the foibles of the Second French Empire.

When you’re not French and you live a century and a half later, these things can seem terribly flat. This is why they need some help – and why Offenbach’s La Belle Helene is coming to Highgate in a new touring production which changes the name – ever so slightly – to Troy Boy.

The joke there, if it needs explaining, is that Belle Helene is nominally about Helen of Troy and the sorry consequences of her love life. But if you’ve seen it, you’ll know that the piece goes way beyond the parameters of ancient literature, at length, and not always joyously. So Kit Hesketh-Harvey decided to take matters in hand.

Hesketh-Harvey is best known as one half (the stand-up talking one as opposed to the sit-down piano player) of that most mischievously erudite of cabaret turns, Kit and the Widow.

But his talents extend to virtuoso appearances on verbal panel games like Just A Minute, writing film and theatre scripts (including Merchant Ivory’s Maurice) and, in his spare time, writing opera libretti – of which there are at least a dozen to date.

Some of these libretti have been from scratch, for brand new music, but most have been English adaptations of existing foreign language texts. It’s an undertaking about which he claims to be “slightly on a crusade”.

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“I can’t see the point of places like Covent Garden making drama that’s unintelligible to 90 per cent of the audience. That’s a sweeping generalisation I know but, unless you’re totally bilingual, a foreign language is always going to be a barrier.”

It was for ENO, where everything gets turned into English, that he made a singing translation of Belle Helene five years ago. This new version, however, is something very different, reworked for the significantly smaller touring forces of six singers, no chorus and a five-piece band.

For good measure, he’s also directing it himself, which means he’s taken a few liberties with the story.

“Instead of Ancient Greece, it now happens in a Greek restaurant in some dire suburban town like Chislehurst where the streets run wild with binge drinkers on a Friday night: a milieu familiar to audiences in many of the places we’re touring to – except, of course, those in Highgate.

“The plot becomes a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage, who escapes into her Greek fantasies and goes off and does a Shirley Valentine with a younger man. We’re hoping that most of the people who buy opera tickets are women, so this should pull them in.”

To anyone who doesn’t like the idea of such radical tampering, Hesketh-Harvey makes the fair point that pieces like Belle Helene were written pragmatically, in a hurry, and on business-like terms which always answered to practicality and budgets.

“I think that gives me a licence to restage them on similar terms and what I’ve done with this adaptation is very much geared to our performing circumstances.

“It’s going to be mostly small venues – including something called the Tunbridge Wells Opera House, which is actually a Wetherspoon’s – and done in a sort of cafe-concert/cabaret style, with what we hope will be a lot of up-close and personal audience involvement. Carefully policed.

“We’ve made a point of casting singers who know how to work on those terms – some of them are graduates of the Boheme which has been playing for ever at the King’s Head in Islington.

“And frankly, the music invites that sort of treatment. Working on it, I keep hearing Jacques Brel, which is another reason why I feel justified in breaking down the ‘This Is Opera’ notion of the piece.

“Of course, it is opera – that’s what holds you spellbound. But if it reminds you of 1930s chansons, then I say use that, act it like that, and make the whole thing less threatening to audiences who maybe feel intimidated by the atmosphere of ENO or Covent Garden.”

Needless to say, another attraction of cabaret opera for Hesketh-Harvey is that it brings the medium closer to his own chosen performing world. Once Troy Boy is on the road, it’s back to cabaret he returns.

“I’ve got a new show in which Kit and Widow share the stage with Fascinating Aida for a review called Cowardly Custard. It’s all Noel Coward and extremely chic, which is why we’re taking it on a Waitrose Tour: nice towns with nice shopping, like Guildford, Malvern and Richmond.”

Far too nice for Highgate, then?

“Well, they’ve got Troy Boy and you can’t have everything at once. But who knows. I just hope the good folk of Highgate – and indeed Hampstead and all the lesser postcodes – come pouring in for this Offenbach because it’s going to be a great little show and, I may say, good to look at as well as listen to.

“Our cast are all wonderfully young, fit and beautiful: we’ve got some pretties – and of both genders. It’s Greece after all... after a fashion.”

o Troy Boy, adapted from Offenbach’s La Belle Helene, is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate from February 9 to March 5 at 7.45pm (with Sunday matinee at 4pm). For tickets, call 020-8340 3488.