Review - La Bohème

in a new translation by Robin Norton-Hale

at Soho Theatre until 4 Sept 2010

Robin Norton-Hale’s bold adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s 19th century opera moves the action from an artist’s garret in Paris to contemporary London. Mimì is a poor, eastern European immigrant who cleans houses for wealthy families and lives in the same building as aspiring writer Rodolfo and his artistic friends. They fall for each other on Christmas Eve when Mimì knocks on the door asking for change for the electricity meter. But Mimì is dangerously ill - she cannot go to the doctor because of her illegal status - and Rodolfo cannot make up his mind whether it is better to love her or to leave her.

Marrying high culture with elements that could have come straight out of a TV soap is dangerous territory but OperaUpClose’s inspired version of La Bohème proves supremely theatrical. It is the very first opera to be staged at Soho Theatre, a well established home for new writing, and they too should be applauded for some brave programming. To see these brilliant young performers sing their hearts out as they slouch around in jeans and trainers or trade insults like an ordinary bunch of lads enjoying a night out on the town is an unforgettable experience.

The mark of a great show is its ability to transport you to another world entirely. Not only does this exhilarating production do that, but we are also taken on an emotional roller coaster that moves its audience from laugher to tears in a matter of heartbeats. The show even embraces outsiders - not surprisingly, casual passers-by were agog at the scenes taking place in Soho’s normally sedate bar.

There is a revolving cast that changes nightly, accompanied by musical director, Andrew Charity, on piano. On press night, it was the women who really shone - twenty-four-year old Rosalind Coad as Mimì and Clare Presland as the luscious Musetta were superb.

One of the company’s stated aims is to bring opera to life for diverse audiences and they have achieved just that. You don’t have to be a fan of opera to appreciate that this is something special. The show’s popularity speaks for itself. La Bohème extended its initial run at Kilburn’s tiny Cock Tavern Theatre from 6 weeks to 6 months. It has tripled its audience capacity since transferring to Soho. This is opera up-close and intimate and one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. Don’t miss it.