MUSIC IN THE LONG VACATION, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 8th October 1955

Amateur theatricals since the time of Nero have been an infallible means of losing face without making money; and where, by some oversight, money has been made, charity, as usual homeless, has popped in and prigged it. The “Pageant of Cambridge” staged outside the New Court of St John’s College during August Bank Holiday was an exception. Faces were made and money was not lost; charity indeed popped in, but no-one will grudge the bestowal of the proceeds upon such an illuminating cause as the restoration of the Lantern at Ely Cathedral.

The entertainment itself was the usual mêlée of men and beasts cavorting through a number of episodes attributed to the history of Cambridge by John Saltmarsh. The production was in the able hands of Camille Prior assisted by Michael Marland.

Pageants are an acquired taste. It always seems to me that foreigners and outsiders must gain little pleasure other than perplexity from such diversions. The humour of casting is lost to them. For a person in the know, however, it is refreshing to observe fellow-citizens dolled up in not always appropriate motley—to see notable high-table bon-viveurs acting as Puritans, to see your bank-manager burnt at the stake, to see choral scholars turned pagan, or a local carthorse caparisoned as a snorting charger. An outsider perforce misses half the fun, and the general inaudibility of open-air performance (so often embellished by our solicitously low-flying Allies) must make it resemble a mystifying parade of mute inglorious Miltons. And yet, witnesses came in clouds.

But to us it was highly enjoyable. There would be many congratulations to record did space allow: and as many gaucheries to deride (gently), did indiscretion permit.

Perhaps the most striking moment of the affair was Simon Phipps’s excellent rendering of Latimer’s sermon before the Bishop of Ely; and the most endearing feature was the apparent inability of any adult to control the younger children in the cast, whose behaviour, far from relevant to any scene in which they appeared, was a delightful distraction.

Mrs Prior has sworn that this pageant is her last, but I am sure we may yet look forward to many entertaining Masques or Divertissements on any likely plot of open ground. So here’s to the next time! A rose by any other name . . .!

Now people will go to a pageant in their thousands, as they did—the locals to sit on grass ordinarily forbidden to their feet, and foreigners out of curiosity at a quaint British custom. But nobody in their senses imagines that anyone will attend a commonplace opera during the very season that is Cambridge’s intellectual ebb-tide. An English opera or similar rarity might conceivably have drawn a quorum, but not an opera in the current continental repertoire, especially when the usual modicum of publicity is omitted. Bravery in taking bad risks is laudable and so is enthusiasm;—but not if it is at the expense of unfortunate guarantors, as I do not doubt this was.

So I felt rather sorry for the comparatively young C.U. Opera Group repeating their production of Cimarosa’s “Secret Marriage” previously staged in March. No notice then appeared in these columns as the Easter Vacation intervened. I now record my impression of both occasions.

The earlier production gained much by being in the Y.M.C.A. Hall, where the small space and obviously ad‑hoc stage give an atmosphere of intimacy and friendliness, and any blemish of performance will be forgiven by a house packed with well-wishers. The more recent production had to battle against the coolth, the professional pretension and the emptiness of the A.D.C. Theatre.

The singing of the ladies, Pat Tempest, Doreen O’Donohue and Margaret Shenfield was very reasonable, but not a patch on that of the men, Christopher Bishop, Kenneth Bowen and John Fitches, which was excellent. Words were audible, and one never had that embarrassing sensation that one was being sung at.

Not much acting was done, save by Christopher Bishop in the part of the crotchety (not to say fidgety) old merchant. The producer did well, perhaps, not to try to make his cast attempt too much, although I wished that John Fitches as Lord Robinson had been more of a fop, which would have made sense of some of his lines.

Leon Lovett conducted the orchestra adroitly and with not unpleasing results. In the A.D.C., however, the orchestra was reduced not only in numbers but evidently in talent.

In the matter of production, what can one say? The first effort of a newly formed group and the first effort of a young producer, Brian Trowell, cannot perhaps be expected to fly too high. Inexperience can be forgiven: lack of imagination cannot.

It seemed to me that too little forethought had been given to the general effect, the integration, and the general mise-en-scène. Certain passages were crammed with very suitable business. The ensembles, by contrast (where the cataract of voices obscured the words) were static shouting matches, and no attempt had been made to prevent them from being as boring as the sight of a straggly line of supporters cheering on a sodden touch-line. This would not have mattered, had the rest of the work been equally boring. The producer has yet to learn how to make new entries of characters eventful and convincing; and must also busy himself about the contributory factors to his production—scenery and costume.

The men’s costumes and wigs, hired from professional sources, had a period flavour which the ladies’ costumes (designed and made by Judith Baker) did not. I do not criticise the ladies’ garments as garments, save that it is questionable whether it is in keeping with the comedy of Opera Buffa to emphasise indiscriminately the dumpiness or lankiness of all the characters. My complaint is that these costumes harmonised neither in colour with the scenery nor in genre with the costumes hired. Forethought had been absent.

Then the scenery (also designed by Judith Baker) was severely utilitarian—a canvas box with a few shabby doors, which would have served better as the garret in Manon or the bathroom in Neues vom Tage. We all know scenery is inessential, but if it is to be used at all, it might as well be appropriate to the play. In this case we hankered after the impression of nouveau-riche ostentation, or of genuine good taste, of grandeur—or at least of comfort. Doubtless in the Y.M.C.A. there was not room. I may seem hard on the designer, but these matters are primarily the responsibility of the producer.

The lapse of several months between the two productions might have given time for some reconsiderations. On the larger stage at the A.D.C., an upper level—some apology for a staircase or balcony—might have been feasible. The eaves-dropping episode, the strolls of Lord Robinson, and the ladies’ altercation cried out for it. The only change I observed in the production, however, was the introduction of an eclipse of the sun during the ensemble at the close of Act 1. The lighting inexplicably dimmed to a deep crimson (oblivious of the music), and, after a short obscurity of everyone’s faces, came up again with a trenchant blue moonlight, in the manner of colour-changes on cinema-organs or advertisements. A short sharp thunderstorm brought this somewhat variegated afternoon to a close.

But we must not cavil at minutiae. It was brave of the group to stage an opera at all, even if the choice of work was misguided. “Sir John in Love” is to be performed next term—a step in the right direction—to which we look forward with interest and pleasure.

Peter Tranchell