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    Good reviews for The Lottery

    Mar 25, 2014

    Reviewed By: Hannah Crawforth, King’s College, London

     

    Review

                The stupendous success of Henry Fielding’s The Lottery in 18th-century London nearly prevented him from writing Tom Jones, the novel for which he is best known. Written in 1732, the ballad opera was the most popular of Fielding’s works for the stage, and he looked all set for a dazzling career as a dramatist and librettist. It was only the 1737 Licensing Act (which sought to censor London’s plays and suppress certain theatres) that forced the writer to turn his hand to the then emerging form of the novel, in pursuit of other forms of income. It is also possible that the box office sensation caused by The Lottery was indirectly responsible for the creation of Handel’s Messiah when – unable to compete with the enormous popularity of the ballad opera genre – the composer decided to turn his hand to writing oratorios.

                In the hands of L’Avventura London and its director, Zak Ozmo, with stage direction by Harry Fehr, The Lottery is no curiosity piece, however, but a vibrant and highly entertaining dramatic work in its own right. Incorporating some of the day’s most popular tunes from both Italian opera and contemporary folk music, scored by the splendidly named Mr Seedo, and performed with the customary vigour of period instrument ensemble L’Avventura’s rolicking musicians, the piece zips along and makes readily apparent just why it was such a box office smash when first staged in 1732.

                The Lottery is a satirical tale of money-making schemes, deception, social climbing and romance, all washed down with a heavy dose of cynicism. Centered around the state lottery set up to finance government debt by having Londoners purchase tickets in the hope of an ever elusive cash prize, this production portrays a kind of 18th-century ponzi scheme, in which unscrupulous figures such as Mr Stocks (Nicholas Merryweather) attempt to cash in on the aspirations of those who flocked to the city in pursuit of a fortune. Chief among them here is one Chloe (Stephanie Corley), a young country woman who believes she will win £10,000 on the lottery and decides to live it up accordingly, taking expensive lodgings, shopping like it is going out of fashion, and turning her nose up at her former love, the country squire Lovemore (Stuart Laing), in favour of the fortune hunter Jack Stocks (Steve McCourt), whose pretense that he has a title mirrors her own putting on of airs.

                Fielding wrote The Lottery as a vehicle for the early modern starlet Kitty Clive, a much-beloved comedienne, singer and actress who attracted big audiences at the celebrated Drury Lane Theatre. It is fair to say that her modern equivalent, Stephanie Corley, likewise steals the show, in a beguiling performance that charms her audience well before her flirtatious epilogue, delivered with a knowing wink. Corley’s voice is delightful and her stage presence compelling; she is as much the star of the show as her 18th-century predecessor. Ably supported by a strong cast of singers (whose task is admittedly made rather harder by being asked to act a wide range of accents, some more effective than others), Corley leads us on a merry dance, her ebulliance only slightly dulled by the inevitable realisation that her big win – which she has already spent – never comes. The lottery turns out to be a fraud on a scale perhaps only Bernie Madoff could have imagined.      

                Fehr’s production makes good use of the beautiful space at Bury Court, having set and costume changes take place in full view of the audience, a witty analogy for the way in which the opera itself shows the workings of the financial schemes that threaten to undo its protagonists. Simple wooden boxes are rearranged to create the London of the play, from the offices of Mr Stock to his sister’s (Ann Marcuson) Pall Mall boarding house, to the Guildhall where the lottery itself is drawn. Our imaginations are assisted in the evocation of these diverse locations by the music, carefully reconstructed from the archives by Ozmo and ballad opera scholar Vanessa Rogers, which transports us to the bustling streets and only slightly more refined private spaces of early modern London.

                L’Avventura is an ensemble at the top of its game, its highly talented musicians working beautifully together to make the music sound as fresh as when it was composed. Their light and playful approach shows their supreme confidence and mastery of their material. The woodwind section (Emily Baines, recorder, and Geoff Coates, oboe) provides some additional comedy with their bluesy and saxophone-like wailing at moments of melodramatic sorrow in the score (and some loud sobs into their handkerchiefs as well). Special mention should also go to Natasha Kraemer’s cello, which keeps the music fairly rocking along with its lively bass. It is easy to see why this early modern version of musical theatre was so popular.

                The Lottery is part of a trio of early modern works offered in the gorgeous surroundings of the barn at Bury Court Opera this spring. The 18th-century genre of the ballad opera is alive and well.