China Song

Allen Saddler, The Independent
2 February, 1999

China 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.

The 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.

China 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.

Highly 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.

The 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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