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Review: Soul Man, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until September 1
IN his own words Chris Monks is taking a chainsaw to Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. It is not a pretty sight, even if you like Seventies flares and flare-ups, caterpillar ’taches and monster-sideburns.
The Scarborough artistic director made musical revamps of operas his calling card with actor-musician versions of The Pirates Of Penzance, The Mikado and Carmen before his move to the East Coast. All have been seen at the SJT too, with their wittily updated lyrics and reinvented settings, and now Soul Man is the first that Monks has written expressly for the Scarborough theatre.
“I’m cutting it to pieces and reassembling it,” he says, introducing the method behind freely adapting Rigoletto and Victor Hugo’s Le Roi S’Amuse for a musical where soaring Italian opera meets smooth Seventies soul.
You might ask why they meet, and certainly you will not benefit from the meeting unless you are at least au fait with the rudiments of Rigoletto, an opera less familiar than Pirates, Mikado or Carmen.
In an ideal world, Soul Man’s story should work under its own steam its own, but the first half definitely does not, and the absence of a synopsis for Rigoletto in the programme robs this premiere of the chance to keep abreast of both Monks’s starting point or appreciate the twists he has applied.
At The Press’s suggestion, that synopsis is now running on the sjt.co.uk website and it may just help you enjoy Soul Man a little more.
It still won’t turn it into a rival to Monks’s cracking cricketing comedy makeover of The Mikado, but it will make more sense of a storyline transported to the 1974 West Yorkshire clubland, where soul revue band Force Of Destiny are already hitting their stride with The Jackson 5’s Dancing Machine and Steve Miller’s The Joker as the audience take their seats and the Outreach Community Actors take their dance partners like their spare parts they pretty much are.
Enter The Joker himself, club comedian and wind-up merchant Justin Jones (West End luminary Jimmy Johnston), Monks’s answer to the Duke of Mantua’s 16th century jester, Rigoletto, whose wind-up ways lead to a vengeful clash with dodgy, drug-dealing, lothario club boss Joe Green (Adam Baxter).
The faithfully facsimiled soul songs tend to sit on top of the plot like a glacé cherry on a blancmange, whereas in past shows Monks has relied on his verbal wit in concentrating on giving dextrous, story-enhancing and knowing shake-ups to opera’s big hits.
The effect is that too much is going on without narrative clarity, and all the while the contrasting musical forms are uneasy neighbours, even if the one shining light, Ngo Omena Ngofa’s Gina Jones, Justin’s teenage daughter in the Romeo & Juliet mode, sings Minnie Riperton’s Loving You so beautifully.
Monks’s tone is less assured this time too, the humour heavy handed. Where previous reinventions had an element of affectionate send-up, Soul Man lacks a layer of irony or a writer’s self-aware, satirical commentary. Consequently, Jimmy’s sexist, racist, bigoted jokes are just appallingly bad rather in appallingly bad taste when viewed through a modern prism.
- Soul Man, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until September 1. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com