A Modest Soprano

I love Roger Allum. That is to say I love him in "Endeavour" and "Cabin Pressure". "er indoor thinks he's the bee's knees. Neither of us have seen him in the theatre so it was a treat to be invited to the Duke of York's to see David Hare's "A Modest Soprano".

A very old friend of ours - I've known him for 44 years and we played squash together for near 40 of those years invited to his 77th birthday celebration. We're privileged as we've been invited to all his birthday celebrations for more years than I care to or can remember. As is tradition we had a pre theatre meal at J Sheekey's fish restaurant just off St Martin's Lane.

I'm a snob: I love being treated as royalty and at Sheekey's that's how I expect royalty is treated. You are greeted as if you dine there everyday. All smiles and attention as you're escorted to your table. I swear the waiters, wine waiters and attendants exchange glances as if to say a much valued friend is to eat with us.

There are five of us. The guests arrive before the host and he enters all smiles and we fall into chatter. Unusually it is not about death, disease and illness but about the future. What one is to do after major heart surgery. What you've planned for the rest of your life alone after your partner of 40 years had a massive heart attack in the street and died. What is your next trip abroad - Greenland?

We ate like the very much alive. It is easy to go overboard at Sheekey. The ambiance of the place encourages relaxed extravagance. The menu is not extensive: it's well set out and as you meander through its offerings it is easy to pat the credit card and think "Well this is special". Except our host is footing the bill. I Wanted "smoked eel" or "blackened miso mackerel" but played safe with "Gravlax salad": others were more adventurous. For my main I plumped for "Fried Fillet of Haddock with chips and mushy peas". Others were more adventurous. My fish and chips were pretty near perfect.

We had no time for sweets or coffee as a couple of glasses of Picpoul de Pinet 2016 were a fitting accompaniment to a delicious meal. Also we needed to get to the theatre.

And so onto the play by David Hare. It's about the beginnings of Gynebourne - no I've never been there - and the manic upper class land owner John Christie's mad, ludicrous idea to have a full scale opera house on the South Downs with not a shepherdess or swain in sight. It's a tale of irony - this quintessential English entertainment was due to the efforts of three Germans fleeing the Nazis  in the 1930's. It's a love story - a story of sacrifice by Christie's wife,  Audrey Mildmay, the modest soprano of the title. It's a farce - contrasting Christie's ambition to out Bayreuth, Bayreuth and the German emigres - intimately familiar with German opera - persuading him to do Mozart  - "He may be great but is he any good?" asks Christie. It is a tragedy - we witness Audrey's slow, anguished, dying and Christie's helplessness. A man who through sheer force of will - Hitler comparisons notwithstanding - brought opera to the tone deaf English - could not save his much younger wife. 

The play had pace, it had wit, it had Roger Allum who was magnificent as Christie - if a bit Mr Toad of Toad Hall. Seeing the Chief Superintendent in "New Tricks" as a German conductor took a while to get used to, but I thought Nancy Carroll was excellent as Audrey, even if I saw her the night before as Lady Felicia Montague née Windermere in Father Brown. There were so many moments of comedy and farce, the scenes with John and Audrey getting iller and iller, I felt interrupted the flow but were necessary to complete the whole picture.The scene where Audrey describes how Christie wooed her and her telling of his heroic and comic deed in  WW1 was especially effective.

It was a great evening, a lovely way to celebrate my mate's 77 birthday and the fish and chips were fantastic. And I'm sure Roger Allum gained many more admirers - although I suspect many of them were there that night.


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