Review: Bernarda Alba, Union Theatre

“Where will you turn when the house of Bernarda falls”

After establishing quite the name for itself with its all-male interpretations of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, the Union Theatre are now letting the women have their turn with Triptic’s production of Michael John LaChiusa’s chamber musical Bernarda Alba. Based on García Lorca‘s The House of Bernarda Alba set in 1930s Spain, this condensed version – directed by Katherine Hare in 90 minutes without interval – captures the claustrophobia and the knife’s-edge balance of this group of women with a score replete with Iberian influences and near-operatic intensity.

Following the death of her husband, Bernarda Alba rises to the position of head of her household of five daughters and team of female servants but her strict matriarchal rule is challenged by the arrival of a man – unseen – into their lives. In Hilary Statt’s wonderfully austere, white-washed design, we explore the repressed desires of each of these women, all bristling in their different ways under the harshness of their mother’s rule as old resentments simmer, sexuality promises to burst loose and mental fragility seriously threatened in this tale of “a happy, happy family”.

Beverley Klein as the redoubtable matriarch is extraordinary, not just in a vocal performance which growls and yelps whilst exerting her authority. A fearsome presence in her mourning garb and ever-brandished cane, she dominates with a rule of iron, adamant that her girls must observe the same traditional place that she has done in society and though we delve a little into her past to reveal a little of why she is this way, Klein never makes the mistake of letting us feel too much for this tyrannical figure. This means her relationship with Poncia, her long-serving housekeeper and sometime-confidant is a little unexplored, but Ellen O’Grady brings a lovely warmth to her more liberal-minded and more motherly figure.

As the eldest and ostensibly plainest of the daughters Angustias, Sophie Jugé has a beautiful delicacy about her, as a potential escape route materialises in the form of a suitor even if he is only interested in her dowry. And as the youngest and prettiest, Amelia Adams-Pearce captures the viciousness of a spoiled little sister who always takes what she wants – in this case the suitor in question – regardless of the consequences. But there’s strong work from the others too: Rebecca Trehearn is fantastic and beautifully-voiced as the moodily intense Martirio and suffering a little from middle-child syndrome in slightly underwritten parts, Soophia Forough’s Magdelena and Emily-Jane Morris’ Amelia both do well.

Racky Plews’ choreography is superb and perfectly suited to the space – the Union does big dance numbers incredibly well but it is lovely to see a show here without the threat of being hit by a wayward dancer or umbrella! – incorporating a dramatic percussive Spanish feel throughout. And Leigh Thompson’s musical direction is excellent too, the band of six tucked away in the corner complement the singing perfectly with expressive and delicate string work. The different textures and harmonies of this all-female score is at times just gorgeous to listen to and all the better for being un-miked.

The Union has a well-deserved reputation for its musicals now, amongst the best on the fringe, and Bernarda Alba is a perfect example of just why that is. The combination of each creative aspect firing on all cylinders – music, choreography, design – with a skilled cast which melds the powerful voice of experience with a reckless youthful abandon is simply electric, making this a rather unique but unmissable piece of theatre.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 17th September

2 Replies to “Review: Bernarda Alba, Union Theatre”

  1. I saw this musical-theatre show on the opening night. It is intense, demanding, and emotionally draining. It deals with sexual frustration and guilt particularly as seen by the daughters, who are destined to repeat their mothers tragic fate, and that of her mother before her.
    LaChiusa's music reflects this dramatic circularity. Occasionally there's a Sondheim-esque cadence, but he's done his homework with flamenco, and each of the characters has an emotionally demanding aria.
    The singers do well with this material, but its the ensemble numbers that make a really powerful emotional impact. The composer doesn't give you a moments respite or an applause cue, which adds to the heavy sexual claustrophobia of the drama.
    Its worth it, believe me, though this kind of material will never sit comfortably in a West End full of happy jukebox musicals.
    See it.

  2. Thanks for the review, nice to know other people liked it as much as I did.
    And I think it is good that it can find a place on the 'fringe': the smaller theatre is perfect for creating the necessary atmosphere.

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