Springtime For Henry (and Barbara) at Wilton’s Music Hall, London.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Unusual, bewildering, but strangely endearing, collaborators Gwyneth Herbert and Mel Brimfield bring a warm, exploratory musical comedy to the boards of the Wilton’s Music Hall in the form of Springtime For Henry (and Barbara). Part performance art, part musical sketch comedy, part history lesson, part absurdist satire of the conventions surrounding 1980s British biographical art documentary, this is seriously specific in its approach – I can only imagine the pitch.
This is the second offering of a developmental trilogy, the first of which premiered at Sheffield’s Site Gallery last year, and the last of which promises to be a huge multi-screen installation in 2016/17. Wilton’s Music hall is an incredible venue, held together as most incredible venues are by donations, ticket/bar sales and pure unadulterated stubbornness. One of Britain’s oldest surviving music halls, and a re-invigorated cultural incubator, it’s the perfect setting for the production.
The show kicks off with a fantastic pastiche documentary on our fictional ‘Lost Musical’ (Springtime), a biographical piece based around the life of famous sculptor Henry Moore, and his sometime lover Barbara Hepworth, also a sculptor. Through the clever editing of re-contextualised archive footage, we watch the various incarnations of the show passed through the clutches of Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Stephen Sondheim, each with their various amusing angles on the production.
In its current incarnation, we are granted a live action glimpse of the rehearsal process, as led by our latest director, played with trademark panache by David Bedella. This is where things take a turn, suddenly a choir is singing in four part harmony embodying the constituent materials of a sculpture, suddenly there’s a duet between Henry Moore (Andrew C. Wadsworth) and a singing rock-face (Herbert), suddenly there’s a partially-carved marble form singing to the tune of ‘Memory’ from Cats, Hugh Ross’ art critic is being terrible to Barbara Hepworth (Frances Ruffelle) and I start to wonder if there might have been something in the water.
There’s very little in the way of narrative structure, or rather, there isn’t a consistent vision as to whose story is being told, which is a bit of an obstacle. Absorbing as the sketches are, they become a little weary in the second half without an over-arching structure to put them into context. Without this, the show is only as good as its worst sketch, and they do vary quite broadly. It’s sometimes hard to tell where the irony begins and ends. Some numbers such as Frances Ruffelle’s ‘Torch Power Ballad’ are neither one thing nor another, so it’s difficult to invest, despite an assured performance.
The Starling Arts Choir is excellent vocally, tackling the complex score well, and sounds gorgeous, However, the members come across as a little self conscious in presence, and a firmer and more detailed direction here from Herbert would come in handy.
Herbert and Brimfield have put together that rare thing, a cleverly constructed score which also sounds great – and the various tributes and quotes from the likes of Kate Bush and Mel Brooks, to name a few, are well placed – though some are occasionally a little obscure in purpose. The words are projected onto the back wall for some reason – it’s more distracting than anything, and fairly unnecessary.
Despite myself, I’m actually learning things. Gosh, this theatre thing is quite good isn’t it? Woven through all the layers of pastiche is a genuine appreciation of Moore and Hepworth, and I’m coming to have quite an interest. Perhaps it’s Wadsworth, with his triumphant dry wit and Yorkshire charm, or maybe it’s the intrigue of Ruffelle’s feisty Barbara Hepworth, but for about half an hour afterwards I really do believe I might sit down with a cup of tea, a tartan wool blanket across my knees and a nice fuzzy BBC VHS-taped documentary when I get home.