Huggable Handel seen in London

Helen Wallace enjoys All the Angels, a new play about the great Baroque composer

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Huggable Handel seen in London
David Horovitch as Handel in All the Angels
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It’s an irresistible story. Grumpy Herr Handel pitches up in Dublin in April 1742 for the premiere of Messiah, after a string of loss-making operas. There he meets singing-actress Susannah Cibber, on the run from a lurid sex scandal. Appalled by her theatrical antics, but admiring her affective gifts, he takes her on. She chips away at his flinty heart. He plays ferociously demanding vocal coach and adapts arias to her modest contralto.  Come the performance, there’s not a dry eye in the house. It's like Pygmalion, but with singers.

Of course, it wasn’t quite like that: in fact, Handel befriended Cibber years earlier, and had already written roles for her, like that of David in Saul. Pedantry aside, playwright Nick Drake and director Jonathan Munby find a potent source in this collision of two great artists on their uppers.

David Horovitch convinces as Handel (above): weary, irritable (‘I thought it would get easier. It doesn’t’) uttering a stream of German expletives to the motley choir learning his fugues (the small but game Portrait Choir). Kelly Price’s coquettish Mrs Cibber is bluntly undermined by the maestro, and a lavish soprano, practising her coloratura up in the gallery.

Sean Campion provides light relief and local colour as Crazy Crow, a Dublin musical porter and body-snatcher, and as Lord Cavendish, at whose behest Handel is there. He pops up, too, as pooterish librettist Charles Jennens, whose brother has just committed suicide – hence his need for ‘Comfort Ye’; oh yes, everyone has a motivational back story here. As with music historian Charles Burney (played by Price) who appears in a pub, Jennens’s own story feels like a non-sequitur, a vehicle for some historical in-filling, which rather clogs up the plot.

Drake’s Handel is a jarringly 21st-century creation, who adopts a Lee Strasberg approach to coaching Cibber: she must pour her experience of being pimped by her husband and then publicly vilified into her performance of 'He was despised and rejected' – ‘Sing He but think She!’, he advises. He even psychoanalyses the jaded Crazy Crow, reminding him he does have a soul: ‘What did your mother sing to you?’. This is a man who deems ‘the fanny’ the source of vocal success, rails against musicians’ poor pay, and donates all his proceeds to charity: in short, a huggable Handel for today.

Over the last few years the Globe has pioneered a new sort of musical play, and this may well be the most interesting one yet: while Samuel Adamson’s Gabriel burdened Purcell’s music with stagey baggage, and Claire van Kampen’s excellent Farinelli and the King relied on the luminous beauty of countertenor Iestyn Davies’s voice, in All the Angels not everything hinges on the quality of musical performance. While the band, led by Chad Kelly, with vivacious violinist Jorge Jimenez, was classy, the chorus was very much part of the cast, singing poorly or with polish, depending on the scene, and there was a palpable sense of exposure in Price’s (a music-theatre actress) efforts to sing. She’s out of her comfort zone, and Drake has built a real emotional crux around her vulnerability and Handel’s sorrow.

The fact that the final 'Trumpet shall sound' felt almost surplus to requirements was a mark of Drake’s achievement: this isn’t Messiah-lite, but a play in its own right. See it, and you’ll never hear ‘He was despised’ in the same way again.

'All the Angels' runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 6 July

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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