It’s late February and I am on the top of a double-decker bus which is swaying like a manic metronome as it rockets along the by-ways of Lincolnshire (no doubt scaring the eponymous poachers) en route to the flourishing market-town of Louth, ‘capital of the Wolds’. On my lap is the vocal score of Lennox Berkeley and Paul Dehn’s comic masterpiece A Dinner Engagement for which I will be the one-man orchestra tomorrow night at 7.30 (by arrangement with Chester Music) and for which the dessert and cheese courses will be a miscellany of Gilbert and Sullivan numbers.
I’ve had a long and happy association with the New London Opera Group, founded in 2004 and mainly associated with highly polished and imaginative productions of the ‘Savoy Operas’ – but not just the old chestnuts since this predominantly youthful group takes Princess Ida, Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke in its stride. Other diversions have been Rutland Boughton’s nativity opera, Bethlehem, and Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl. This is a group which has won prizes galore at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival and has been in the business for fifteen years.
Chris Cann is a leading light of the group both as performer (his Bunthorne is considered by aficionados as definitive) and enterprising stage director. Some while back he and I hatched a plan to tackle A Dinner Engagement, a work we both admired. It’s not as incongruous as it may seem; after all, Berkeley’s score is very much in the style of operetta, with separate numbers, many of them witty pastiches of the genre, interspersed with recitative rather than dialogue. The group has a second home in Louth and over many years has built up an audience which responds enthusiastically to seeing staged productions of the entire Gilbert and Sullivan canon, along with concerts of French and Viennese operetta.
So now here I am on bus 50 from Lincoln station (the branch line is long overgrown), running through details of the piano reduction Berkeley himself made of the orchestral score. Even if the budget had expanded to fit a band, the pit at the Riverhead Theatre would not. I know from good experience that vocal score transcriptions can only offer an approximate guide to what an orchestra plays and that a little bit of chutzpah is needed by the pianist to bring that to life. I’m going to be particularly tested by the closing pages of scene 1: torrents of athletic semiquavers in the sparkling trio accompanying the preparation of tomates Monteblanco, followed by the smoking-oven music (I really need an extra hand for that) and the final, purely instrumental allegro vivace when the Grand Duchess and her son enter to some finger-knotting fugal writing which, I’m afraid, will have to be slightly simplified. There will also be no page-turner on the night but let’s not worry about that. Chester Music has not helped by issuing a reprint of the score which has been reduced to fit A4 paper size – thereby squashing up the notation so that it’s harder to separate the flats from the sharps.
Curiously, the important town of Louth has never possessed a theatre until relatively recently when a modern building was adapted. It’s run on a voluntary basis by the local community in association with Louth Playgoers, a long-established drama group. It seats around 200 and for our one performance of A Dinner Engagement, we’re a sell-out. As my reckless omnibus finally lurches into its garage, the cast of the show are also gathering. We’re all in the same digs: seven singers with fine voices; director Chris; Steve Greenwood on ‘sparks’; stage manager David Sait; conductor Alex Carpenter; and me. Rehearsals in London have been mostly held in the vast and impressive (though chilly) Holy Trinity, Prince Consort Rd., so now it’s good for the cast to get on to a stage and explore the Countess of Dunmow’s kitchen, which is the set. Meanwhile, I make friends with the piano, finding out, as always with an unknown instrument, what it can do (exploit that) and what it can’t (heave a sigh and press on).
We now need to work intensively. It’s Friday afternoon and we have to get through two full run-throughs of the entire programme before our director will release us for fish and chips at the Woolpack pub around the corner. Saturday involves a technical rehearsal in the morning to check lighting, cues and effects (we don’t want to set off fire-alarms with our smoking oven) plus some figurative fire-fighting to sort out musical areas that are still causing problems. Alex, my conductor, is very experienced and remains admirably cool, calm and collected. What’s more important, he has a very clear beat. Around 2pm we embark on a full dress-rehearsal with the cast in costume for the first time and it goes pretty well. Chris delivers his own brand of notes (encouraging) and we go ‘home’ to rest up.
Show time is 7.30pm and the performance goes well with high levels of concentration on stage which I can sense from my piano-stool. I realise instinctively that the Louth audience, some of whom tell us afterwards they’ve never experienced a ‘proper’ opera before, are genuinely enchanted and fascinated by the piece. Berkeley’s music is naturally more of a challenge than Sullivan’s but it doesn’t seem to have put people off. Pairing it with the Savoyards’ more familiar fare works a treat and just seems appropriate in spirit. I’ve no idea if Lennox was a G & S fan but I hope he would have approved of the juxtaposition.
Curtain down by 10pm, now comes the less glamorous part of touring: packing up costumes and props; tidying up the stage area and the pit. Then it’s off for our own late-night dinner engagement at the obliging Taipan Chinese Restaurant and a bit of partying afterwards back at our digs. But not too late as I, for one, am off early on that osculating bus back to Lincoln station.
All in all, A Dinner Engagement was a challenge, an experiment and also something of a pioneering venture for us. We did our best to serve up cold cherry soup and tomates Monteblanco to the highest standards and our customers departed, we feel, replete. But let’s hope they’ll be back for second helpings.