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Boatswain’s Mate

by on 11 August 2022

Dealing With a Sex Pest – Edwardian Style

The Boatswain’s Mate

music and libretto by Dame Ethel Smyth

Spectra Ensemble at The Arcola Theatre until 13th August, then on tour until 9th October

Review by Patrick Shorrock

Ethyl Smyth

It seems to be Dame Ethel Smyth’s year, with her opera, The Wreckers, performed at Glyndebourne and the Proms.  The Boatswain’s Mate is lighter fare and actually funny (which can’t be always be said for operatic comedies).  It’s worth hearing, as the music is pleasing, if not, perhaps, desperately individual.  Pianist and Music Director John Warner – well supported by Emily Earl on violin and Meera Priyanka Raja on cello – did a fine job with the reduced score, while giving hints that the full orchestration might have something to add to the overall effect. 

The lively overture features Smyth’s famous March of the Women – the anthem of the Suffragette Movement.  We see a woman on a deck chair reading.  She is subjected to the clearly unwanted advances from a man in beachwear.  She is successful in driving him away when she proves that she is better than he is playing with his beach-ball. 

Mrs Waters (a splendid Josephine Goddard) is a widow running a country inn (The Beehive).  She is regularly inflicted with offers of marriage from Harry Benn, a retired boatswain (John Upperton, sleazily effective and vocally incisive).  She goes off on an errand, leaving Benn minding the pub.   When Ned Travers, a broke ex-soldier (Shaun Aquilina, also a fine singer but like Goddard too young for the part) arrives, Benn persuades him to pretend to burgle the inn, so that Benn can play the heroic rescuer.  However, it all goes wrong for Benn, when Ned and Mrs Waters come to an understanding and agree to convince Benn that she shot the intruder.  When the police arrive – to the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony –  Benn is suitably embarrassed at the absence of a corpse, and the opera ends with Ned and Mrs Waters getting closer together. 

It’s all rather amusing – aided by Smyth’s sprightly, witty score with just a hint of English folk wistfulness – although it would have been even more amusing if the words had been easier to hear, or surtitles had been provided.  Josephine Goddard is a splendid landlady, although she slightly over-sings, which really isn’t necessary in a venue this small or with a voice this good.  She provides evidence of the frumpish power of an overall and a pair of marigolds, as she no longer quite convinces as an ageing widow past her prime, once these are replaced by nightwear.

Fine support is provided by ensemble singers Beca Davies (also Mrs Travers’ assistant, Mary Ann), Philippe Durrant, and Robert Winslade Anderson (also the Policeman who shows that G and S don’t have a monopoly on comic depictions of the constabulary).   Cecilia Stinton’s production effectively plays up the sit com element.  But she doesn’t quite make her mind up whether it is set now or at the period of writing (1914): Ellie Roser’s fine costumes seem decidedly Edwardian but Ned’s long hair definitely isn’t.   

I suspect the piece’s feminist credentials have been slightly hyped.  It’s more that it taps into that operatic vein of strong female characters where the comedy is at expense of a representative of twilight patriarchy like Don Pasquale or Falstaff.  If anyone wanted an interesting double bill, The Boatswain’s Mate would make an intriguing contrast with Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole where the heroine is similarly adroit in deterring unwanted male attentions. 

Patrick Shorrock, August 2022

Photography by Lidia Crisafulli

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