Scene Unseen – Royal & Derngate/English Touring Opera

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: James Dacre

Writers: Jessica Walker and Joseph Atkins

At first glance, Scene Unseen appears to be your standard cabaret. Jessica Walker is perched on top of a piano. The look: top hat and tails, cool blonde hair and red lipstick referencing both a 19th century music hall tradition as well as film icon, Marlene Dietrich. Walker started her career as an opera singer, but her voice travels across musical genres in search of truth and self-expression.

Composer Joseph Atkins accompanies Walker on the piano, as she begins to tell us about her wedding day. It is told in the first person: this is to be a decidedly intimate story. Walker discusses feelings of gender confusion. Is she the husband, or the wife? She finds herself existing “somewhere between the lines”.

Divided into a number of songs, or scenes, the performance centres around Walker’s biography. Her exploration of gender roles starts as a child, “trying on the clothes of women, sometimes men”. She has a preference for costumes: Cowboy and Roman Legionnaire. Her mum hopefully suggests frilly dresses. Walker disappears into guises of other people. She reaches for the imaginary ideal, but it just doesn’t fit.

Adapted for film, Scene Unseen makes good use of the camera as Walker switches from performance mode to something more personal. Dressed in black, half in shadow, she looks us square in the eye. She dwells on childhood memories of being an outsider; composite impressions of rare days out with her father. The music closely mirrors what Walker chooses to share with us: it shifts from impatient and jagged as we move from life-changing experiences (Girl’s Boy, Train Crash) to lyrical and dream-like fantasies (Crane Man). Atkins uses scurrying notes across the keyboard to illustrate unresolved tension: the music never quite lets us settle. Walker moves into adulthood – a bluesy feel interprets her stint as a waitress in a Chelsea nightclub. The clientele are nothing but “twats, wankers and Sloanes”.

At the heart of Scene Unseen is psychological trauma. Walker’s story comes full circle as she reveals the true nature of her relationship with her father. In Disappointing Child she muses on the confusion in her parents’ eyes, her inability to conform. She reprises Wedding Day. This should be the happy ending. Instead, the event is soured as Walker believes she is “undeserving” of this happiness.

Scene Unseen uses recurring motifs to explore the emotional damage in secrets and tainted memories. Atkins’ frame of reference extends beyond cabaret into musical theatre, 80’s synth and classical music. Nothing feels off the table, and this sense of possibility is echoed in Walker’s performance as she sings with a spontaneity that perfectly dovetails with Atkins’ composition. The lyrics are fiendishly clever and deftly worked. They pinpoint moods and moments with absolute precision. The pain of realising you are different; the exhilaration as you discover you are not alone. Walker’s revelations not only tap into a difficult, complex range of emotions but also the notion of growth and transformation. There is, Walker sings, “no need for a sequel”.

Available here until 28 December 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Fiendishly clever

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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