Sunday, 24 September 2017

REVIEW: Fever Pitch - the Opera at the Union Chapel

Fever Pitch, the book was rightly acclaimed as a brilliant sport book when published in 1992 and all football fans will understand and the identify with the obsession, passion, commitment and despair that football fans feel for their club . The book covers a period from 1968 to 1992 using 75 matches (mainly Arsenal games) to link to author Nick Hornby's life peaking with May 1989, when Arsenal won the league for the first time in 18 years and made him, a born again member of the church of latter day championship believer. So the challenge was how to compress this into a coherent opera set in a Church?

Composer, Scott Stroman , artistic director of Highbury Opera Theatre, and librettist Tamsin Collison took on the challenge and added the constraints that shaped the production. The venue, the Union Chapel in Highbury is a grand Victorian church with wooden pews and a temporary stage around the large pulpit and is home of HOT. The enthusiastic twenty seven local community adult choir and two children's chorus of twenty are integral to the production. The structure of two forty five minute halves under the huge Highbury clock that marks out the passing of time. Then edited the selection of matches down to a handful of key ones - Gooners first game (in 68) , league cup defeat (in 69), the double winning team ( of 71) , a local derby ( in 81) and the league winning game (in 89).

At times these constraints and structure overwhelmed the production leaving it looking a bit of a mess but more often than not there were glimpses of quality that emerge and the strength of the book and Nick Hornby's writing shines through.

The music is a sort of West Side Story meets Oliver with occasional Jazz and light opera influences - overlaid with chants from the terraces. It is a great idea but does not quite work consistently throughout .

The highlight of the first Act is a sequence with the teen chorus led by Teen Gooner, Phillip Protheroe. He is charismatic and his jazzy number "you gotta walk the walk" is fun and effective as he discovers girls and faces the choice of Gunners or girls. 

In the second half, the adult Gooner played by Robin Bailey comes into his own and we start to feel the torment expressed in the original books between his obsession with football, his search for love and his desire to get his books published. 

The sequence begins with a fun comic book "you gotta fake it to make it " under the watchful eye of SuperMac, Malcolm Macdonald as Gooner struggles to be a teacher . This leads smoothly into the excellent "Lets try this play another way " with Gooner and the teen chorus in full West side story mode telling Romeo and Juliet as a football match , a Shakespeare metaphor.

And finally we see Gooner with the psychiatrist , Joanna Harries in fine voice , in "Everyone needs a tribe" in which Gooner understands his obsession and then as Arsenal win the Littlewood Cup sees his writing career take off. 

The production ends with a celebration of the Arsenal winning the league in May
89 and two big production numbers "watch us climb the league " and " the greatest moment ever" but despite the undoubted best endeavours and fine ensemble effort , we don't quite feel the euphoria of success that Hornby describes in his book .

This is an ambitious undertaking, converting an autobiographical episodic novel into a coherent 90 minute community opera and you want it to work. Many of the elements are there but as football fan and a fan of the Fever Pitch book , it fell short of its lofty ambition , much like the Arsenal team themselves have done!

If you are an Arsenal fan or live in Islington, you should go and support this Opera this weekend but everyone else might prefer to reread the wonderful book.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★
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