New English Libretto: David Eaton and Philip Lee
Director: Mark Ravenhill
Composer: Giacomo Puccini
A swift (and small) poll of theatre attendees tells us that the reactions among those seeing “La Bohème” printed on a ticket generally fall into three categories. We have the “oh not again” reaction of those who have seen numerous versions of Mimi’s tragic story; the “is that the one where everyone’s poor and then she dies?” sort of cautious curiosity; and those who think “hello old friend” in warm anticipation of seeing what a production team has done with a true classic.
For all three groups, this new version will surely have something. As musical director (and co-librettist alongside Philip Lee) David Eaton says in the programme notes of the changes – “different words, different emotions, different voice types, different story”. A cast of four means the story focuses tightly on the journey of the two main couples of the original, retaining the fast pace and intensity of their turbulent loves but updating it to render them as recognisable as friends and colleagues rather than old Parisian figures.
We’re in London now, present day. Rodolfo is now Robin, but still a writer. Marcello has become Marcus, still an artist without any money. Musetta is now Marissa, and remains torn between genuine love and material gains. The big change is Mimi (played by Philip Lee), who goes from a sickly seamstress to a perfume salesman at Liberty’s who turns up at Robin’s door for a very nervous Grindr hookup. Mimi’s illness is still present; when asked why he’s not feeling well, we get a beautifully sung “I’m hungover”. We also learn his HIV status is “undetectable”. It’s an interesting inclusion, both in terms of building Mimi’s character and perhaps a piece of misdirection in an opera defined by the death of Mimi from a long-term illness. Through the course of the production’s 90 minute run time, however, it’s made clear Mimi has some other issues that will ultimately prove to be his undoing.
The new writing brings us bang up to date. The storytelling deals with mental health, intense queer relationships, substance abuse, and timeless themes of jealousy mixed with true affection. It’s a smart, genuinely hilarious and fascinating update to the story, though it still has some challenges to address before it’s perfect.
Musically, with the edits necessary to make it fit a smaller stage and altered story, it’s gorgeous. Philip Lee as Mimi stands out in a strong field, a tender portrayal of a damaged individual complete with the range and expressiveness we’ve come to expect from him as a performer singing big opera in small rooms. Matt Kellett may have been suffering from a cold but had no perceivable issues within his charismatic performance.
Containing it all is a hospital room set that takes up only around half of the available space. It’s visually distracting to have everything so closely mashed together in this small area framed by a white wall on a black background. On top of that, the medical setting is also not associated with the vast majority of the action (taking place in a flat, a bar and a hallway). While it makes some sense as part of the overall story (perhaps it’s all a play within a play?) it feels like greater integration of the set, costume and storyline is sacrificed to make a loosely-defined conceptual gesture. It detracts from the otherwise strong overall production.
It’s a creative and useful update to the story and a good contribution to the general body of La Bohème productions, and is gripping at times. But it’s not quite at the same level of emotional impact, vibrancy of feelings or depth of tragedy as the original. At times Puccini’s music even seems to lose its impact with the context of the familiar story and lyrics (even an English translation) altered. However, in general, the curvy sweeps of the beautiful 19thC romantic score are there, interpreted well by David Eaton as accompanying pianist.
The original opera is getting old now, and will survive only with creative productions and smart updates to introduce its power to a modern audience. The team have done a superb job with the storytelling, musical edits and performance here; a rethink of the visuals and they’d be on to a real winner.
Runs until 28 May 2022