Scottish Opera, Elmbank Crescent, Glasgow
Under the current regime, Scottish Opera likes to name things literally – “Opera Highlights”, “Live at No 40” – and there could be no more apposite name for the current cohort of what used to be called “Connect” than “Scottish Opera Young Company”. The new work that is having just four public performances in the rehearsal space at the top of the HQ building at Glasgow’s Charing Cross is both essentially a tale for and by young people and a superb ensemble performance. However unlikely it may be that all 21 of these talented youngsters go on to professional musical careers, they will always have this achievement to boast of.
Composer Gareth Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight have given them a bold piece to get their collective teeth into. The Rubble of the title is the ruin of a 1980s care home, Findenterran Farm, where young people were taken for their own safety, only to be subject to abuse. Told both by the characters at the time and their older selves looking back from the present day, the parallels with recent criminal proceedings and public inquiries do not need explanation. In his trademark style, McKnight nonetheless manages to bring broad humour and just enough leavening sentimentality to the subject matter. Director Roxana Haines’ insistence that neither the central abused child nor the perpetrator of the abuse is ever portrayed by an individual onstage is key to both the drama of the staging and that crucial ensemble feel to the production.
That Williams and McKnight have experience of working in partnership is obvious in the music. There are echoes of Philip Glass – particularly in the finger-counting of piano lessons early in the piece – and of Stephen Sondheim in some of the phrasing of lyrics, and when the music lands on a melodious phrase, the composer makes sure it lodges in the consciousness. Scored for single strings, percussion, accordion and piano, under the baton of Chris Gray, there are some lovely touches in the instrumentation, but the focus is always on the chorus, save just two longer arias. Soprano Shuna Scott Sendal, the sole professional singer, has a perfectly-timed double-edged moment as the staff member taking refuge in drink, and Haydn Cullen takes his opportunity to deliver the score’s pivotal revelatory song with stylish confidence. As new arrival Jude, who pairs up with the home’s Queen Bee Charlie (Imogen Bews), he sets in motion the chain of events that leads to decisive action by Sendal’s Mrs Pearson.
In the contained space, audience on two sides and musicians on a third, the fluent choreography of the ensemble is as impressive as the singing. As was quickly pointed out in a Q&A session after the first performance, it is regrettable that such a powerful piece of work will be seen by relatively few people. Although a through-composed operatic work, much of the sound-world is as close to music-theatre and it would not be at all fanciful to see the production enjoying a successful Edinburgh Fringe run. The award-winning work there by much-missed Tramway-based Junction 25 youth theatre company was often brought to mind, and that is high praise.