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Review: The Bartered Bride, Opera North, Newcastle Theatre Royal

Good performances abound in The Bartered Bride at Newcastle Theatre Royal as James Harrison reports

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Robert Workman A scene from The Bartered Bride by Opera North
A scene from The Bartered Bride by Opera North

The plot treads a well-worn path. Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Boy has a mysterious past. Girl is forced to marry a different boy. Boy ends up marrying the girl anyway. Everyone lives happily ever after – with a few exceptions.

In this successful revival, the Leeds-based company demonstrates a refreshing and humorous take on the classic by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana.

Daniel Slater’s grimly comic production opens with an almost caricatured imagining of Soviet-era Czechoslovakia and the kind of stage-managed choir practice you would associate with the propaganda machine.

Young and old, male and female, are regimented and physically separated from each other but are unified by matching blue polyester blazers.

Within this sea of conformity Kate Valentine’s Marenka stands out in that classic symbol of Eastern European rebellion – blue jeans.

Brenden Gunnell, playing her brooding lover Jeník, enters soon after, equally nonconformist in what looks like an Indiana Jones-style Halloween costume.

The pair – Gunnell’s macho voice masking his character’s underlying sensitivity; Valentine with a more nuanced and charismatic style – have some genuine on-stage chemistry.

Following a particularly powerful solo scene in which Marenka weighs her conflicted feelings of love and betrayal, she lets rip at Jeník with righteous fury.

Special mention must also be made of James Creswell as the manipulative village mayor, Kecal, and Nicholas Watts as Vašek who stutters his way through his sung and spoken lines to bring an element of emotional vulnerability and insecurity.

He also produces some of the funniest moments, particularly his failed attempt to run away with circus ballerina Esmeralda, sung by multi-talented Jennifer France.

But it’s Michael McIntyre lookalike Cresswell who steals the show. Striding across the stage like a pantomime villain, his left eyebrow constantly aspiring to new heights, it’s a delicious moment when the smug snake-oil salesman finally gets his comeuppance.

The Bartered Bride can be seen again on Thursday at 7pm.

by James Harrison

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