‘So you’re going to see the gay sex opera?’ exclaimed my friend, open-mouthed. People certainly seem to have had some odd preconceptions about Mark Simpson’s new chamber opera Pleasure. The distinguished critic of the Daily Telegraph let it be known that he awaited ‘with trepidation, something set in the lavatories of a gay nightclub’. And to be fair, the news that Pleasure was to star Lesley Garrett — last seen in Welsh National Opera’s Chorus! ascending to the heavens aboard an enormous pair of lips — didn’t exactly dampen suspicions that we were about to see some sort of camp spectacular: Adès’s Powder Her Face meets RuPaul’s Drag Race.
In fact, Pleasure is about as non-camp as any opera can be that features a six-foot man delivering an aria clad only in stiletto heels, make-up and balloons. Leslie Travers’s set comprises the neon-lit letters of the show’s name. An overflowing wheelie bin and a lavatory basin lurk behind them, plus a box of teabags (Yorkshire Tea, naturally) — reminders of bleak realities and small comforts. Within this single setting and a running time of little more than an hour, Simpson unfolds a tragedy that had audience members around me in tears. That’s a tribute to Simpson’s score: a dark, glistening thing that pulses with minimalist rhythms and heaves itself up into grand baroque gestures while letting vocal lines rise naturally and push through the texture. Tim Albery’s direction draws affecting and realistic performances from the central couple, Timothy Nelson and Nick Pritchard: a remarkably tender portrayal of love frustrated by class as much as by Steven Page’s malevolent drag queen (the main prejudice explored in Pleasure is between generations).
But it’s also a tribute to Garrett’s astonishing, late-career-defining portrayal of the lavatory attendant Val.