Julian Eaves reviews Noye”s Flood, a community theatre piece now playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East
The gentrification of Stratford continues apace with this Ur-Community Theatre piece from the hands of Benjamin Britten and the 15th Century authors of the Chester Mystery Plays, not to mention a few odds and ends scrambled together from various ecclesiastical sources. It is nothing if not eclectic. And it carries quite a reputation before it, of being rather wonderful – at least according to the received opinion of the 1950s.
A curiosity it certainly is. About an hour long, mainly populated by enthusiastic kiddies tricked out as animals to be herded onto the Ark featured in the famous story from the Book of Genesis about the Universal Inundation, and adorned with a few grown-ups who play the more talkative characters involved. The Great Flood, as we know, is one of God’s more notorious fits of pique against His Creation. Speaking of which, there is a good bit of chat in here later on about ‘no more revenge’. Well, I would advise audiences to pay close attention to such ‘promises’. A casual inspection of subsequent biblical (if not actual) history reveals that God is about as good at living up to his promises as our esteemed mortal leaders of today. How curious.
The children here are numerous and drawn from local schools – Brampton Primary and Churchfields Junior – while the orchestra is stuffed full of young players from all over the city, beefed up with a few principles from mainstream professional bands (the leader is Janice Graham of the ENO, whose joint-baby this project is. Soutra Gilmour has been enlisted to create the – typically – dominant set with animal artwork by Oliver Jeffers. Luke Halls floods the lot with video projections, and Oliver Fenwick lights it. Wayne McGregor assisted by Sarah Downing provides some splendid choreography for the Raven (either Alyssia Baptiste or Neve Woodham, and I suspect I saw the latter – definitely the highlight of the production) and the Dove.
Suzanne Bertish makes for an imposing and well-spoken God, making you wonder why we don’t see her more often on the stage. Her protege, the Ark building Noah, is Marcus Farnsworth and his spouse, Louise Callinan. Both do a creditable job of reminding us how Britten can sound when real singers get a crack at his music. Elsewhere, it’s catch as catch can with a lot of amateurs. The mini-chorus of Gossips (this is not a libretto which shies away from perpetuating stereotypes, paces the modish change of gender of the Creator): there are some clearly cathedral-choir (or similar) trained voices here, as well as others with less vocal wherewithal about them. You can make out some of the things they sing,… not all. Generally speaking, though, most people know it rained a lot and there was more flooding than even Tewkesbury has seen.
Probably as enjoyable as anything happening on stage are the three moments when the theatre audience is enrolled, by the charming ENO director of music, Martin Fitzpatrick, to learn and then belt out some best-loved Songs of Praise. ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’ is perhaps the stand-out success there: and I had the good fortune to go through it alongside someone who had learnt it in the stalls of Eton Chapel. Yes, it is that sort of a show, with that sort of an audience.
The East End? Where is that? What is it? An hour spent in the company of this delightfully charming theatrical entertainment will do little to enlighten you on the subject. Nay, not even the presence of the Stratford East Singers, or the other participant sources: ENO Baylis, ENO Community Choir, or the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A drink in the bar will evidence further the movement of Nadia Falls’ emporium into the arms of gentlefolk and away from any connection with any ‘black’ immigrant population with roots on other continents: the bar has been stripped back and painted… white.
Until 13 July 2019