The Moderate Soprano, Hampstead Theatre, review: ‘Only a moderate success’

Nancy Carroll (Audrey Mildmay) and George Taylor (Rudolph Bing) in The Moderate Soprano. Picture: Ma

Nancy Carroll (Audrey Mildmay) and George Taylor (Rudolph Bing) in The Moderate Soprano. Picture: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

David Hare’s new work is full of warmth and wit, but it’s hard to get worked up about a story concerning a Mozart performance in Sussex, says Marianka Swain.

Following Farinelli and the King, here’s another gently aimless drama about opera and – more circuitously – the inestimable value of art. David Hare takes us back to 1934 and the birth of Glyndebourne, with Rae Smith’s design illustrating its distinctive blend of public and private. The most interesting revelation is that this oh-so-English festival has considerable German DNA. Founder John Christie was impressed by their efficient opera houses and dreamed of a shrine to his beloved Wagner, while the original creative team were Germans emigrés. But once we’re privy to the Nazi horrors they’ve escaped – laid bare in a mesmeric scene, immaculately paced by Jeremy Herrin – it’s hard to get too worked up about whether or not a Mozart production in Sussex will succeed.

There are other competing strands in the choppy, non-linear narrative, including the late-in-life relationship between Christie and soprano wife Audrey, notions of patriotism and integrity, and the conflicting demands of art, loyalty and commerce. Like a student eager to show off extensive reading, Hare has piled everything in, creating a curious 90-minute play that’s more about a place than a driving idea.

Roger Allam, unrecognisable in bald cap and paunch, is typically excellent as the eccentric amateur bullheadedly determined to be a force for good. However, Hare can’t reconcile several inherent contradictions: Christie lauds artists, but mistreats them; believes in accessible art, but creates Britain’s most exclusive cultural institution – “Snobs on the lawn”.

There’s stirring work from Paul Jesson, Nick Sampson and George Taylor as the courageous exiles, but the real draw is Nancy Carroll. Her Audrey is a cool, brilliantly astute diplomat, who privately fears becoming defined by her husband and later rages against the dying of the light. Warmth and wry wit, but only a moderate success.

Rating: 3/5 stars