China Doll – A Neuropera in Four Seasons – Edinburgh Festival Fringe

2015CHINADP_PTChina Doll – A Neuropera in Four Seasons continues at the Pleasance Dome until 31 August.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★

Jakob Robertson’s heady mix of aesthetic charm and exquisite score shines in this re-imagined folk tale at the Pleasance dome. Greeted by a simple but beautiful set which blossoms and wilts with the seasons, this production is a treat for the senses.

We first meet Nina, a beautiful fille-de-joie whose childless body torments her to the point where she ensnares her hapless lover within a tragic and desperate lie from which she cannot escape, faking her pregnancy, and later, her child itself. Alice Morgan-Richards delivers a robust and heartfelt performance as our protagonist, and Andrew Lee is perfectly cast as the limply stoic but ultimately unrequited lover, Vincent.

There will be those who find it difficult to reconcile the flaws in the narrative, and indeed it may be a stretch to believe that a man can be blinded to the fact that his newborn is made entirely of porcelain (despite the entire village laughing at his expense) – but there are subtle clues in this dream-like production that hint of his sleepless nights, of Nina’s manipulation, and of his comfort in belief, which is impressively handled by the company.

Flitting in and out of their lives are doomed couple, Anna and Alexi. Living the high life, but haunted by their innate incompatibility, Carlton James serves up a nice blend of cocky arrogance and intrinsic unease as Alexi, but it is Phoebe Rose who steals the show with her performance.

Bursting in as a perfect caricature, it is a joy to watch her peel back the layers of insecurity and repressed anxiety to reveal Anna’s vulnerable core, demonstrating a subtle maturity beyond her years. Rose’s vocal performance, especially during the beautiful Satie-drenched ballad, more than matches her acting talents.

Robertson’s book contains a pleasant breadth of female characters, and it is refreshing to witness Anna’s resolve – this is no Nancy (from Oliver Twist), doomed to die for the love of an uncaring man, she of all the characters proves herself stronger through adversity than her swooning counterparts.

Another credit to this show is the ensemble. The detail in Bryony Maguire’s direction is admirable, each character fully formed, constantly focused and involved in the world they have created, even when acting as part of the set itself. Transitions are smooth and understated, choreography is sharp. The two village women and their husbands handle their scenes with solid comic skill. Choral numbers, however, do have a tendency to race ahead of themselves, which is a shame, as the comedy patter is cleverly written.

The line between opera and musical theatre is indeed blurring, and we must applaud those working to integrate the houses. There is an underground dream of opera accessible to the masses, of musical theatre elevated from the commercial conveyor-belt, perhaps a beautiful middle ground where the disciplines are mutually respected and intertwined.

This production is part of that movement, though I cannot yet say that there was quite enough of the operatic discipline demonstrated to justify its ‘Neuroperatic’ title. However you choose to categorise the experience though, it is a beautiful and vibrant work of art, of which this creative company should be very proud.

Aura Simon

Bad Habit Theatre


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