Reviewed by Alex Foott
Thursday 17th October 2013
It is a truly agonising thing to behold a performer who has quite a notable talent when they are tethered to a frankly dismal production. Sadly, this is such a case. While Vivienne is a commendable effort to elevate one of the most downtrodden women of the 20th century, it fails to propel TS Eliot’s wife into our sympathies. Instead we become very annoyed. Very quickly. This opera in miniature has nothing that appeals to a younger audience. There is very little in the way of comic relief (an invaluable device of theatrical melancholia) and the exaggerated direction and relentless high notes leave the audience exhausted within the first ten minutes, straining to follow the story.
An ode to the oppressive relationship between TS Eliot and his wife, Vivienne marks the downward spiral from youthful rebellion to mental instability. Predictably, the story begins with the couple’s first meeting and Vivienne’s subsequent introduction to womanhood. The incessant lamentations echoing around the small space make for a very murky plot line, with members of the audience whispering to one another for guidance. Among numerous generic wailings bemoaning the sorry state of marital affairs, this one woman show briefly touches on some more memorable moments. Her raunchy involvement with Bertrand Russell (British philosopher and mathematician) is a direct result of Eliot’s negligence and, to make matters worse, when he returns from working in America, he has her committed to a mental asylum.
While Vivienne more than likely started as an impressively minimalist piece, I fear that its creators grew rather giddy in the process of its construction. A brain-dissolving concoction of opera, pantomime direction and utterly forgettable melodies, this is a production that hits all the wrong notes. Vivienne’s loud misery very quickly becomes irksome and the brief moments of attempted comedy fall flat every time. There are some terribly awkward moments at the end of each song where there is the evident expectation of applause. However, the music is so nondescript that we cannot recognise when a number has finished. Clare McCaldin, as our eponymous heroine, struggles with the gravity of this tale of woe. As she battles with Stephen McNeff’s abusive use of her higher range, we lose contact with the vast majority of the story and must wait idly for the tempest to subside. It is fair to say that McCaldin’s warbling soprano is flawless and she confidently hits each note soundly, yet this talent is not enough to make this a successful piece.
As a whole, this is one of the least attractive shows I have ever seen. Vivienne has a rather rabid energy to it that forces its audience to cower in shock and confusion. An interesting concept with a disappointing result.
Music by Stephen McNeff
Words by Andy Rashleigh
Directed by Joe Austin