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Scoring a Century - A Musical Entertainment (World Premiere): Music by David Blake, Libretto by Keith Warner, Lionel Friend (Conductor) Keith Warner (Director) with a cast and orchestra from the Birmingham Conservatoire, Crescent Theatre, Birmingham 5.3.2010 (GR)

Entrusting a World Premiere to the students of Birmingham Conservatoire either says much for the general standard among their current ranks or the work itself is nothing to raise your cap to. Scoring a Century had both hits and misses, but the students were all from the first eleven. Composer David Blake has not had the greatest success with his operas in the past. His Toussaint from the ENO in 1977 was encouragingly received and critics believed it would be a shame if it vanished into obscurity. Judged by all the hard work that had clearly gone into his latest piece of musical theatre, similar conclusions might be drawn. Such was the talent and enthusiasm of the Conservatoire performers that they justified the responsibility given to them; the original launch had been destined for Portland Opera but became a victim of 9/11.


How should Scoring a Century be classified? In the programme, librettist and director Keith Warner claimed it was ‘a low entertainment for high brows, or vice versa’. This episodic tale of a Mr and Mrs Jedermann, woven into some of the most significant events and lifestyles of the twentieth century, was in my opinion a mixture of both. Whether it was wise to cram nineteen panels (as Warner termed them) and four mini-operas into just over two hours of stage time is debatable. Inevitably there was a certain lack of continuity, making it more revue-like than either Singspiel or musical comedy. The subtitle ‘A Musical Entertainment’ was accurate on both counts.


An easel stage right displayed our progress through the years visited by the ageless Jedermanns. How their surroundings changed was graphically illustrated by the excellent set designs of Jeremy Daker. Time rolled by courtesy of a couple of tracks across the Crescent stage allowing access for a real wagon, suitably adorned to represent the particular period in question. The transitions were smoothly done and the resulting tableaux provided an effective focus for the action as events unfolded. Together with efficient lighting by John Bishop and the brilliant and varied costumes from Nicky Shaw, it presented a stunning spectacle.


Panel 1 was a rumbustious opening chorus; This is our show reminded me of the Gang Show tradition and announced the students’ intention of enjoying themselves, and us at the same time. Panel 2 introduced us to the ‘Everymans’ played by Matthew Cooper and Lucie Louvrier, a couple of jobbing entertainers. They got off the mark as a supporting act in the Pier Theatre at Trouville, a couple of Cassandras dreaming in 1901 of peace, the Chunnel and men on the moon – a foretaste of how Warner’s knock was to pan out. In Panel 3 the story’s resident composer Berthold (the talented Henrik Lagercrantz) introduced his first mini-opera Playing God, set in the trenches of the Somme. Blake’s music for this illustrated his Hanns Eisler influence but was rather uninspiring. Likewise the storyline of a sergeant, playing God by winging his young private in order to remove him from the front line was unconvincing – friendly fire that passed me by.


How the relief at the end of the Great War evaporated by the 1920’s was vividly spelt out by the message of the Concert Party in Panel 4. It comprised a Nurse (the believably clinical Anna Jeffers) and world leaders Clemenceau, Lenin, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George. As the economics of the world brought their own problems, the choreography of Assistant Director Michael Barry (the man behind so many excellent Conservatoire productions) the costumes, the ‘on the wagon’ setting and the rendering of the vocal lines all clicked.


Redundancy, endemic during the last century, was exposed in Panel 5. Jedermann, his son and Berthold discussed how their music must move with the times to survive, with reference to such possible subjects as ‘Guys and Dolls’. Moving on, Panel 6 saw Mrs Jedermann playing a gangster’s moll on a1936 film set. Louvrier’s Rat-a-tat-tat lyrics were notable for their punch and rhythm, a prohibition rebel searching for her Top Gun. Visibly shaken by the telegram news of her son’s death, fighting for freedom in the Spanish Civil War, she got no sympathy from the studio producer – the show must go on. Next!


Panel 7 was a German cabaret in 1938; Jedermann trifled with his Tartine (the long-legged Francesca Saracino). Warner’s dialogue got more complicated with mention of eminent German conductors and Czech youth movements. It was all very connected and pertinent, but as the one-liners came fast and furious, concentration was of the essence. How many in the audience would have realised the relevance of the character Michael Sokol? Louvrier’s Land of Dreams followed, a requiem for her son. With the chorus in support this number came across well and was a bitter sting in her tale as her aspirations for right and freedom became A Land of Lies. Nice touch! After further subterfuge involving all levels of the Third Reich, backstage happenings became confused with those out front, as the turns of Jedermann and Tartine were juxtaposed. Both numbers expressed prevailing pre-War attitudes – Jedermann’s World in Confusion and Tartine’s Come and Sin Along (one of Blake’s catchier tunes but we were some way from Kurt Weill). It was hard work at times to zero in on Warner Vision Entertainment. Blink and you miss it!


The aging Berthold introduced his second opera for Panel 8. With time to focus on a mother and father at a railway station in the 1940s, the music of Blake plus Warner’s words and direction created a poignant piece. The Package portrayed the couple’s daily vigil on a platform waiting for their POW son to return home. The mood was suitably reflected by the Conservatoire orchestra, under the expert control throughout the evening of their Conductor in Residence, Lionel Friend. No stranger to Blake’s music, he captured the tension of the moment, assisted in no small part by the bassoon of Clare Trim. All the parents got was a parcel. Inside it was a recording of their son’s last words ‘They are not inhuman here’. But he lied, as the gunshot on the tape confirmed. A six hit!


By 1949 the Jedermanns had journeyed east to Russia for Panel 9, a scene notable for Andrea Tjäder as the Kommissar. The Jedermanns’ song and dance versatility knew no bounds with lines such as Buddy, Won’t you spare a Kopek and a Glory, Glory, Glory, to Stalin. Panel 10 was a veritable coup de théâtre, a 1950 Show Trial. Although there was no wall, the chorus were divided on the stage wagon into East and West, Shaw’s explicit costumes adding to their energetic partisanship. Beria and McCarthy sat behind their desks, appropriately utilitarian and luxurious respectively. Jedermann was on trial from both of the two major powers – accused as a Trotskyite and a Capitalist, a nihilist and an anarchist. Sentenced jointly for ten years, in Siberia on the one hand and New York (the largest mental institution in the world) on the other, the fate of Jedermann seemed anything but ‘Onward’, his closing comment of the first half.


Jedermann began Panel 11 in No Man’s Land, a survivor reflecting on his fifty years as an entertainer. By 1959, he and his wife were in the land of the free, musing on whether politics and their routine were compatible. Then in the 1960s of Panel 12 the Protest Songs rang forth. Warner again presented a pocket history of the age, cultural and political, from Marilyn Monroe to The Sound of Music, from Kennedy to Chou en Lai.


Re-enter Berthold, now showing his age to introduce his third mini-opera. Lagercrantz’s spoken lines illustrated his excellent timing and stage presence, and produced genuine amusement all round; I loved his joint pupillage from Charles and Burl Ives and sponsorship from Enron. In Panel 13 The Hostage a man (the tireless Cooper) had been charged with moral laxity. I was impressed by the contributions from his three female accusers who find him guilty and of the atmospheric music of Blake. After indulging in a game of Russian roulette they shot their victim. But he survived – all the bullets were blanks, shades of Palmieri in Tosca.


Louvrier blossomed as one of the hippies in Panel 14, displaying one of the defining images of the 1960s. Once more in an audition queue (this time for Hair) she was alongside the Mary Lou of Rachel Farr – a delightful cameo spoken role – peace and love, baby. On to the 1970s and Panel 15, Berthold was suffering, and vividly so, from Chronic Artistic Shock. He reminisced about his various operas and how directors had conceptualised and ‘ruined’ them. After poking fun at so many social issues, director Warner, not a stranger to controversial interpretations, had turned the joke onto himself. Lagercrantz’s I still can do it was the outstanding solo vocal contribution of the evening, expressive and incisive.


Berthold’s fourth and final mini-opera The Monetarist Dream was the major component of Panel 16; Warner sought a literal solution to the 1980s Trickle Down effect. Although the chorus were well focussed on the rhythm of the lyrics, I was left in limbo, lost in a gulf as wide as that between the bankers and the unemployed.


I found the following nervous nineties of Panel 17 set in an American agent’s office somewhat tiresome; more of the same was summed up in Jedermann’s own words ‘A revolution! Here in paradise? Oh no, not again.’ Despite their fears of never finding work again the Jedermanns struck it rich, nostalgia was the vogue in Hollywood once more. Their duet It was so different then, the nearest this musical entertainment came to a love duet, struck the right chord from the middle of the bat and at the right time. The 21st Century Medley from the two main protagonists reprised much of what had gone before (plus more pessimism concerning global warming) but the final word deservedly belonged to the magnificent chorus and their closing ‘That was our Show’. Uncertainty reigned supreme.


Scoring a Century was well received on the second night of its premiere in Birmingham. Hopefully the frustrations Blake and Warner must have experienced in realizing their own dream are now behind them and both composer and librettist are satisfied with the outcome. Above all it was fun. Will another organisation give it an innings? I’d certainly go to see it again.

Geoff Read

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