Michael Tanner

Reflexive and reflective

<strong>Punch and Judy</strong><br /> <em>Linbury Studio</em> <strong>La vie parisienne</strong><br /> <em>Guildhall School of Music and Drama</em>

Punch and Judy
Linbury Studio

La vie parisienne
Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy is very much a piece of its time, the late 1960s, but returning to it after many years I was pleasantly surprised to find how much of it remains fresh and invigorating. Music Theatre Wales mounted three performances at the Linbury, and in a few weeks there will be a new production of it by ENO. It seemed to fit perfectly into the limited space of the Linbury, the orchestra behind the stage, and it has enough of the feel of a fairground entertainment to make the idea of it in a large and more formal setting odd, but we can only hope for a fascinating transformation.

I had remembered it as a pretty relentlessly strident work, but my memory was agreeably wrong. Alternating with the savagery and the excess-energy thumping there is a lot of lyrical, gentle, melodious music, though I didn’t emerge from the depths humming any tunes. One of the virtues of MTW’s production, though, as opposed to what I recall of previous ones, is that it was done as a repertory piece, not as a defiant contribution to avant-garde theatre. The performers are veterans in their roles, and I’d like to write about their individual merits, but I can only single out Gwion Thomas’s classic Punch, just the right mixture of geniality and threat, indolent lust and restlessness, and with a finely projected singing voice; and Jeremy Huw Williams as Choregos, the narrator-cum-commentator as well as Jack Ketch the hangman: this narrator has quite a say in the way things go, and Williams has a look of crafty complicity which will be hard for anyone to equal.

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