Review Ben & Imo, RSC Stratford-upon-Avon by James Ellis

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

In the centenary year of his birth, I attended Benjamin Britten’s prized creation: the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk. Walking to his grave, I spoke in one of my awful poem’s how I “staggered sharply” to pay my respects. His black megalith, is paired with his life partner Peter Pears, singer of renowned who created many of Britten’s tenor roles. Behind them is Imogen Holst.

Daughter to Gustav Holst, renowned for the eternal Planets Suite, Imogen had a gun-ho attitude to her career in music. She kept up morale during WWII, teaching children and amateurs to play instruments and sing. This new play by Mark Ravenhill sees her friendship formulate with Britten, over the terrifying commission of Gloriana, for the Queen’s coronation. With 9 months till the premiere, their relationship is greatly tested through power dynamics, sexual politics, class, position and taste. Though I did not find any great appeal in her compositions, she remains a female composer of note, not just for assisting in an opera and festival planning.

Imo is billed as a musical adviser to the creation of the opera. She dips in and out of the role, notes and advice abound about the score, cast and programming. Ben’s depression, bad arm and composer’s block is what makes the creation so fraught, his cageyness about Imo is another huge barrier about what she is on the project. Ravenhill’s knows his stuff, his work in the operatic form lies in his back catalogue. There is a depth in his characters, who seem to brush aside the total nonsense of the world. It is eloquently written, possibly working better as a one act show around 95 minute mark, like the radio play it is based on.

Director Erica Whyman has created a intimate show in the Swan Theatre. The space may evoke Shakespeare’s Globe, yet the back wall had a feel of Britten’s own Snape Maltings, with beach shingle spread across the floor. The soundscape is of the sea through out, expected due to the setting (Britten’s exposed house gets flooded at Christmas). The score by Conor Mitchell is a dastardly wonder, piano heavy and not heard enough. Connor Fogel playing live offstage was a wonderous addition, adding a live musical elevation to the show. This how ever didn’t stop the actors from both pretend playing the revolving piano on stage, with it spurts of water during the flood scene. Both Conor and Connor have had fun on the music side of things, the references to Britten in the score are there apparently to point out.

As Britten, Samuel Barnett looks the part, the curly, tempered hair, the clothes and glasses. His face does capture something of the composer if only a little. The sensible, then furious mood swings are delivered well. Britten would not have been an all rounded figure to gel with, how easy it was to be excluded at the drop of a hat. There was tenderness too, the love for Imo still there even in roaring insults. Victoria Yeats is chatty, whimsical, yet still grounded as Imogen. She arrives almost like Mary Poppins into the space. Yeats seems to brush off most of the tantrums of her fellow composer, like a mother, sibling and at times a wife. She stands her ground with Barnett in moments of shouty confrontation, all for the good of music making.

The second act sees the most patient driver in existence, as the tense morning before trying out the opera in London is delayed due to Imo’s tardiness. There is much yelling and poison from both, it could have almost turned physical. This is a work of fiction about two recent creative lives, people who knew them both are still around. I wonder just how catty things really got between them…

Though the opera Gloriana itself, does have its fans, it is nowhere Britten’s best. Much is said of a flop at its opening and though it has seen some stagings here and there, there is still life in the show yet. Ben & Imo proves just how intense a process it was to make.

Ben & Imo runs till 6 April 2024

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