With the possible exception of my own heterosexual betrothal one heady night in Malta in 1976, I can think of few projects more certifiably doomed to failure than The Dowager’s Oyster. As a succession of wrong choices, it is a quite breathtaking example because the book, lyrics, acting, music, choreography, and staging are universally atrocious.

There’s no harm in proposing a comic operetta set in the twenties wherein a flapper and her mother holiday in the South of France while her bisexual fiancé dabbles in the back passages of Tangier before a poisoning and a Poirot investigation – but trespassing in the territories of The Boy Friend, The Merry Widow, and Agatha Christie delivers the triple threat of failure.

Not only do the producers appear to have learned nothing from the critical drubbing it received at the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola in August – ‘a flaccid and synthetically aged operetta‘ – they have compounded their felony by kidnapping the artist formerly known as Dr Evadne Hinge to play a 1920’s chatelaine as an amateur dramatic society stagehand drafted in at the last minute to understudy Lady Bracknell.  In Basingstoke.

Neck to ankle in black bombazine with a hat stolen from an 1890s Gaiety Girl she’s apparently unaware everyone else knows it’s stylish to lift your skirts and bob your hair and attempt a half-hearted Charleston while the stage flexes beneath them.

Dame Hilda must be spinning in her grave.

Please don’t think I’m being unnecessarily harsh to a company whose budget is slender: there are plenty of shoestring productions across London which manage decent singing and dancing, engage performers who can also act at the same time, or turn out a crisply comic script and an engaging plot – so why not this one? To limit your orchestra to two is an understandable economy, but then to choose a double bass and an accordion as the only instruments with which to accompany a two hour opera is an act of unrestrained musical sadism.

It would be unnecessarily cruel to name the cast, but it’s interesting none of those who sang in it at the Arcola in August came back for more at the quirky So-and-So Arts Club in November.

Desperately seeking something positive to say or to find some pleasant air among the tunelessness and the hopeless lyrics Jack Cherry thinks are ‘Gilbertian’ there was one charming song delivered first by the flapper as a paean to her absent fiancé and then reprised by him with his male lover in a sweet duet.

On the way home, I told myself it was just nonsense to conceive of a ‘jazz operetta’ and that there must be no such thing. But something rang a distant bell and I Googled The Duchess of Chicago a rare 1928 piece by the Hungarian Emmerich Kálmán which actually does combine Viennese waltz-opera, jazz, Charleston, a bit of Beethoven a bit of Gershwin and some zigeuner music.   It’s possibly what composer Louis Mander was striving for and I can think of nothing more helpful than to recommend he studies it, not least this glorious excerpt from the Sverdlovsk State Academic Theatre’s production in Yekaterinburg in 2012.

And please, someone – preferably ENO – revive it!


until November 26.