Saddler, The Independent
2 February, 1999
Song arrives with a list of awards. Last year's Vivian Ellis for
the most promising musical, book writer and lyricist, and the 1998
Warner/Chappell Music Prize. It has also been dubbed A Wizard of
Oz for the Nineties. China Song is worthy of the awards, but the
comparison is doubtful. The Wizard of Oz has the Munchkins, Toto
and a philosophically PC-ending. China Song is beguiling enough
to charm an audience of adults, but may be over the heads of children.
story of a captured delight failing to live up to its promise in
captivity is a theme well-thumbed; in this case, from Hans Andersen's
The Nightingale and John Fowles's The Collector. Presented here
as a fairy tale in operatic form, its plea for freedom and naturalness
provides a powerful dramatic motif.
Song is an artistic triumph for writer and lyricist Simon Nicholson,
composer Gary Carpenter and director Annie Castledine. The story
of the Emperor who refuses to assume the responsibility of his office,
preferring to play with toys and scour the country for unusual novelties,
may or may not be PC, depending on your philosophical outlook. "What
about China?" asks the Chief Mandarin. "Sell it,"
says the wayward Emperor. The evasion of responsibility forms the
background to this near perfect piece of miniature musical theatre.
polished and stretched just within its limits, it holds the attention
throughout with its eclectic musical score, running between Menotti
and Sondheim, with the occasional outburst of burlesque razzmatazz.
Played by a five-piece chamber ensemble of harp, saxes, bass, guitar
and banjo, actively led by musical director Timothy Sutton at the
keyboards, it is always interesting, and often absorbing.
cast sing with wistful intensity drawing the audience into acceptance
of a magic world without any element of surprise or shock. Brendan
O'Hea plays the Emperor with insolent grace, and Nigel Richards
is the anxious official at the end of his tether. Amber Sinclair
plays the Nightingale, captured for the Emperor's amusement and
robbed of song in captivity, and Elizabeth Mansfield, as the ever-willing
toymaker, bounces off songs like 'I'm a genius' and 'Fishing'..
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