English Eccentrics

Victorian Opera presents English Eccentrics photo by Hilary WalkerWhat a fabulously zany collection of loosely threaded divertissements English Eccentrics is! Australian composer Malcolm Williamson’s quirky two-act chamber opera might be a rarely performed work but it’s a little nugget that serves its purpose well. 

Presented by Victorian Opera (VO) as part of VO Emerge – the company’s programming for developing artists – a pool of young talent brings this 60-year-old work to life under the direction of newly appointed artistic director, Stuart Maunder. And it proves to be a perfect piece for early-career artists to be in the spotlight.

When English Eccentrics was first performed in 1964 – born from a commission by the English Opera Group – criticism was as varied as the vignette-like format making up this 100-minute work, including it having little dramatic thread.

Perhaps that type of criticism stems from expectations unwilling to accept or savour the work’s own inbuilt eccentricity. There are, after all, 39 assorted characters to meet which could feel overwhelming. 

VO The Cast of English Eccentrics photo by Hilary WalkerBut Williamson’s delightfully inventive, mercurial score which borrows from all kinds of sources and Geoffrey Dunn’s sharp-witted libretto, based on Edith Sitwell’s 1933 anecdotal book – she a consummate eccentric herself – combine for an unforgettable peep into not only the lives of so-called eccentrics but the perplexity, contradictions and trivialities of society itself.

Imagine yourself in the NGV Salon with its conglomeration of predominantly 19th century artwork of varying genres set out like a jigsaw puzzle on its walls where, for example, Gustave Courbet’s The Wave nudges up to Jules Lefebvre’s female nude, The GrasshopperEnglish Eccentrics exudes a similar sense of overall beauty, quirkiness and individual surprise.

Under a thick cloudy sky, it begins with an ensemble of characters singing, Goose Weather – a reference to favourable conditions hoped for – and the aim of one certain woman to be rid of her melancholy. If there’s any feeling of melancholy the audience comes with, you could say the ensuing shenanigans act as something of a tonic.

Act 1 includes, among others, Miss Tylney Long, upset that her hat makes her only 10 feet tall and Lord Petersham, the snuff-addicted dandy flaunting his snuff-box collection. There’s the exuberant bath-loving Lord Rokeby juxtaposed with bath-avoiding Lady Lewson who, instead, covers herself in hog’s lard.

VO Michaela Cadwgan as Sarah Whitehead and The Cast of English Eccentrics photo by Hilary WalkerEstate rich John Ward prays to God for protection of his assets and the narcissistic Creole actor Romeo Coates can’t recognise his lack of talent. The act concludes with the tragic story of Sarah Whitehead who lost her mind, unable to accept that her brother who looked after her had been hanged for forgery.

Act 2 is just as dense. A group of quacks meet in the park with the flamboyant trendsetting Beau Brummell, the old military man and hermit, Philip Thicknesse, is about to be evicted and the audacious young housemaid, Mary Barker, creates great fuss in her disguise as an exotic foreign princess. Act 2 similarly ends in tragic circumstances with the decline of Beau Brummell.

Flipping from frivolity and comedy one moment to disturbing misadventures the next, it’s hardly inconsequential theatre. If there’s one thing to take away from this cornucopia of oddities, it may be the recognition that everyone has their idiosyncrasies and they just need to be made room for.

Made up of 11 principal cast members and a chorus of 9, it’s a privilege to see the foundations of opera’s future success performed with such enthusiasm, effortlessness and exactness. Notably, diction is flawless across the board and a keen sense of engaging and expressive singing prevailed. And, along with strong acting, the comedy and pathos shines. 

To single out a few, Douglas Kelly is particularly outstanding in utilising broad colour with his radiant tenor as John Ward and Beau Brummell, as is soprano Michaela Cadwgan, who gives vocal richness to Lady Lewson and a haunting Sarah Whitehead. 

VO Henry Shaw as Philip Thicknesse in English Eccentrics photo by Hilary WalkerBass-baritone Henry Shaw holds the stage commandingly as the hermit while revelling in a spot of ventriloquism with his chattering book. Tenor Alistair Cooper-Golec attacks four roles splendidly, his Romeo Coates being an especially polished and entertaining performance and appealingly sculptured tenor Joshua Morton-Galea digs dark and deep into the Young Whitehead’s psyche on one hand and Lord Petersham’s insecurities on the other.

Set and costume designer Louisa Fitzgerald works wonders with her vibrant and exquisite array of theatrically crafted outfits of Victorian and Edwardian tastes and an economical set featuring three split levels and spare furnishings adjusted for each act. A series of canvas drops evoke Act 1’s wintry sky that gives way to more autumnal warmth in Act 2 to add further context as part of Harrie Hogan’s punchy lighting design.

Musically, conductor Susan Collins brings energetic first class form to Williamson’s lovable meandering score. With just seven musicians comprising the VO Chamber Orchestra, their tirelessness and expertise illuminate the score’s own idiosyncratic sounds marvellously. 

It’s likely this could be the only chance locals get to see this polished composition. Not near enough of Williamson’s work is performed. Back in 2016, Lyric Opera Melbourne presented a small-scale but compelling production of the composer’s unfairly neglected first opera, Our Man in Havana, based on the Graham Greene novel. 

Apart from holding the illustrious position Master of the Queen’s Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, Williamson wrote 9 operas all up, including The Growing Castle and Lucky-Peter’s Journeyboth based on plays by Swedish writer August Strindberg. With any luck, there’ll be the initiative and room to explore the likes of these in the near future.  

English Eccentrics
Union Theatre – University of Melbourne, 159 Monash Road, Parkville
Performance: Thursday 4 July 2024
Season continues to 6 July 2024
Information and Bookings: www.victorianopera.com.au

Images: The Cast of English Eccentrics – photo by Hilary Walker | Michaela Cadwgan as Sarah Whitehead and The Cast of English Eccentrics – photo by Hilary Walker | The Cast of English Eccentrics – photo by Hilary Walker | Henry Shaw as Philip Thicknesse in English Eccentrics – photo by Hilary Walker

Review: Paul Selar