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The Zoo

14 March 2018

Worth Every Bun-Penny

The Zoo

by Arthur Sullivan, libretto by Bolton Rowe

Hounslow Light Opera Company at St. Stephen’s, Hounslow, 9th March
then to St. Mary’s Hampton, 10th March

Review by Mark Aspen

When Albert, in Stanley Holloway’s rhyme, goes to the zoo at Blackpool, his whole family, the Ramsbottoms, are not impressed with the journey there. “They didn’t think much to the ocean, the waves they were piddlin’ and small. There were no wrecks and nobody drownded, ‘fact, nothin’ to laugh at at all! Hounslow Light Opera Company take no such chances when taking us to the zoo at Hounslow.

Hloc Zoo 1

The first half of the froth, fun and frolics that is HLOC’s The Zoo, takes us to its operetta menagerie by a delightful and entertaining route. We pack our musical bags with The Bare Necessities, melodious close harmony by the chorus, fetchingly dressed for the occasion with scarlet cravats over snappy black costumes.

The chorus, of fourteen ladies and two brave men, sings Bye Bye Blackbird and we are off. Along the road, we see plenty of other birds. First Meadowlark , a touching song about a blind bird whose “voice could match the angel’s in its glory”, a beautifully lyrical rendition by soprano, Lindsey-Anne Carter. June Hume invites us to Feed the Birds, warmly rounded in the mezzo end of the register. But even before we had said our adieus to the blackbird, Tony Cotterill, in contrast, had been urging us to go Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. This wicked little piece, penned by Tom Leher, points out that “it’s not against any relig-i-on to want to dispose of a pig-e-on” and allows Cotterill to give full rein to his acting skills. Having grounded the birds, the chorus is back with a Chicken-Little Medley.

What more grounded animal is there than a hippopotamus, especially when “wallowing in glorious mud”. Flanders and Swann’s much loved duet, The Hippopotamus Song, became a solo duet from Paul Huggins on the opening night, when his singing partner was indisposed. The valiant Huggins continued unabashed, but, even more valiantly, had to put up with the community singing of the audience who insisted in helping him out in the choruses. The eponymous hippopotamus fared better as “his inamorata adjusted her garter and lifted her voice in duet”.

On the way to the zoo, a black cat crossing your path might be lucky … unless it happened to be T.S. Eliot’s Macavity, as we are reminded by Elizabeth Malone in her spoken verse interlude, but if the cat is a sensual as Andrea Wilkins moggie, then Everybody Wants to Be a Cat. One can feel that the huskily swaying Wilkins desperately wants to dance, a tap routine perhaps. Certainly if she could release the animal and let it rip, it would be very dangerous!

When the route to the zoo becomes an equestrian bridleway, the horses let rip. First out of the starting gate are Felicity Morgan’s White Horses, “snowy white” that “let me ride away”. A coloratura soprano accompanying herself on guitar, we feel in the music their manes twirling in the wind. Then Rachael White’s Wild Horses, slightly more under control than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ 1971 original, beautifully sung, in a lyrical soprano.

The as we approach the zoo gates, tremble Albert Ramsbottom, for we hear The Lion King Medley, lots of bold leonine chorus work, expressively sung, as one might say, with pride!!

A quick stop for refreshments and then the gates of Bolton Rowe’s zoo, The Zoo that we’ve all come along to visit. This bijou operetta is immediately recognisable as in the G&S style, but this was premiered in 1875 with Rowe as librettist. Although in the fledgling years of the Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations, The Zoo was usurped at the box offices by Trial by Jury and very undeservedly has languish somewhat ever since. But I thought I caught a hint of “Wand’ring Minstrel” in some of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s score. The overture is pure Sullivan, and how skilfully it opens the zoo gates for us in the hands of HLOC’s incomparable musical director, Lee Dewsnap, teasing the impact of an orchestra from a keyboard.

We stroll into The Zoo together with a preoccupied Crowd of Visitors to the Zoo, the HOLC’s chorus, who accompanied us on our perambulations in the first half. They are so enjoying the day that they are almost too preoccupied to notice a young man about to hang himself at the refreshment stall by the bear pit. Not that they are too bothered, they just want to “know the reason why. Is it your wife?” The dangling distraught man, the wonderfully, albeit appropriately named, Aesculapius Carboy, is a pharmaceutical neophyte, who is in love with Laetitia Grinder. Carboy explains that her parents disapprove of the match, so he has been communicating with Laetitia via the labels on the medicines prescribed for her family, but the labels have got swapped around … with disastrous results.

Carboy’s demise is thwarted by the arrival of the refreshment stall holder Eliza Smith, who doesn’t want untidy corpses cluttering her stall. Moreover, Eliza’s busy love life now involves “a very ordinary man” Tom Brown, who has been desperately wooing her. So desperately in fact that he has built up a substantial bill at the refreshment stall. As she castigates him about his account, Laetitia arrives looking for Carboy, for apparently the label mix-up was a prank by her cantankerous sister.

The duets between the two pairs of lovers meet in counterpoint in a double duet that is a very clever musical matrix by Rowe and Sullivan. Carboy and Laetitia’s relieved expression of love and Tom and Eliza’s spat about the pastries join in an amalgam of decorated duet and patisserie patter-song. It is quite a virtuoso piece, well handled by the quartet.

In this quartet, the contrast in the words in the two duets also point up the different timbres in the voices of the two sopranos, both accomplished singers, Felicity Morgan’s elaborated ornamentation as Laetitia and the clear fluidity of Johanna Chamber’s Eliza. The men largely form a foil to the ladies voices. Carboy is a part made for Tony Cotterill, who acts the fateful pharmacist, distilling out the essence of the role with alchemical aplomb. But, Tom, securely sung and acted by Paul Huggins, now come to the fore, very dramatically … he collapses.

As the crowd does as crowds do, i.e crowd, the recumbent Tom pants “I think I’m going to faint.” Crowding ladies, “He’s going to be ill”. Crowding men, ”Oh, no, he ain’t!”. Until, with a last cry of “It was the last bun” … he faints.

In spite of the second onions of the lay crowd, Carboy comes to the rescue of Tom, brandishing a prescription, with which (eventually) Eliza flies off to have made up.

However, Carboy discovers that the lump in Tom’s torso, is not the last bun, but the insignia of the Order of the Garter, and can offer a diagnosis that “he’s a peer in disguise”, a not so ordinary young man after all.

If at his point you can feel the resolution of the storyline coming up, then you are right, but not before the appearance of Mrs Grinder. Andrea Wilkins’ feline mezzo is back, but this time in spitting snarling mood, as Grinder holds forth against her “wicked daughter” and her consort, that “vilest compounder of potions” , thus driving the depressive dispenser back to the rope’s end, this time in the bear pit itself.

But all is well that ends well, for Tom is now in full splendour as the Duke of Islington, and is able to buy the zoo for Eliza, so that she doesn’t miss the “”the beasts I loved so well” and, as his grace now lovingly sings, “Every morn, at early dawn, the gentle armadillo, or rattlesnake, when you awake, you’ll find upon your pillow”. He then buys off Mrs Grinder, with a wedding present to Laetitia and Carboy of ten thousand pounds.

When the voice of the hapless Carboy is heard from the bear pit (the bears have been relocated), Laetitia’s response is “Great Heavens! I had forgotten” whilst the chorus is merely miffed that he has stirred their sympathy and denied them his death. Carboy climbs out of the bear pit to “try the lion’s den.”

Maybe we can reflect with Stanley Holloway’s Mrs Ramsbottom that “it’s a shame and a sin, for a lion to go and eat Albert, and after we’ve paid to come in”. However, that would be to deny that Hounslow Light Opera’s trip to The Zoo is a great Victorian parlour-piece worth every bun-penny.

Mark Aspen
March 2018

Images courtesy of Hounslow Light Opera Company

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From → Musicals, Reviews

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