New musical entertainment Gabriel will provide you with some of the most magical hours you will spend in a London theatre this summer. It is a new and joyously unclassifiable show, written by Samuel Adamson and spearheaded by trumpeter-extraordinaire Alison Balsom, which celebrates the musical genius of Henry Purcell and uses the real life character of John Shore, court trumpeter in the 1690s, as a vehicle to do so.
That said the show is not the story of either of these men’s lives. Purcell never appears as a character, and John Shore is more of a vehicle and narrator than leading role. The show is more a reflection on and a celebration of Purcell’s music and how it was informed by and reflected in the political and social events of “noisy Protestant England” in the 1690s.
The central character of John Shore is ingeniously split into two, meaning the show does not become either about a wholly male or female trumpeter while maintaining historical authenticity. Alison Balsom, with her natural valveless trumpet in hand, provides the playing, articulating Purcell’s music and portraying John’s virtuosic talent, for Richard Riddell’s brilliant and sensitive performance. Riddell launches the show into a stream of shorter plays and scenes, each in their own right a meditation on something that was happening in the period following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ while still also finding a contemporary resonance. While not having – or needing – a strong central narrative, there are threads of stories that carry on throughout, with certain character popping up time and again while others are more fleeting.
The much-discussed but never seen Henry Purcell connects each of Adamson’s vignettes, a pervading presence which informs everything that is seen. The playlets themselves, weaving together fact and fiction, take the audience from the Royal Courts to the Thames, via playhouses and battlefields, introducing you to a whole host of characters that are both recognisable and authentic. Particularly entertaining was the depiction of verbose waterman Francis Taylor, played marvellously by Sam Cox, who would make a great match for any London taxi driver today, spinning tall stories one after the other for his minstrel passengers. In a dramatic scene in the second act we see how his tales end up getting him into hot water.
The Shore family, father and two sons, were a real life virtuosic family of trumpet players, and through them Adamson articulates the era’s debates around the potential for the instrument. They are seen coming to blows; elder brother and heavy drinker Bill (Trevor Fox) extolls the traditional militaristic and patriotic qualities of the instrument and laments little brother John’s move from battlefield to theatre. John, a kind of protégé of Purcell’s, is meanwhile discovering the haunting, softer sounds that Purcell’s later trumpet works began to experiment with. While the young, mortally ill and war-hungry Prince William (Joshua James) who would not live past his twelfth birthday is seen to agree with Bill, Balsom treats us to a beautiful new arrangement of ‘Sound the Trumpets’ – Purcell’s birthday ode for Queen Mary – which perfectly showcases what John and Purcell were beginning to discover; her yearning notes effortlessly weave in and out of a beautiful countertenor vocal melody. Throughout the show she continues to demonstrate this sweetness of tone in the instrument’s range.
Dominic Dromgoole’s playful and brave production gives audiences a bit of everything: from the deliciously earthy, bawdy and crude (where for instance the trumpet becomes a hilarious phallic symbol), to the painfully romantic via the absurdly comic, all accompanied by a marvellous musical ensemble of instrumentalists and singers. The production is a varied, witty delight for Baroque enthusiasts, families and first-timers alike. The show is a perfect marriage of music and drama, and under the expert hand of Music Director Bill Buckley the ensemble of 18 actor-singers and 15 musicians plays Purcell’s music with more energy and passion than you’re likely to hear anywhere in London.
Of the large and impressive cast, Jessie Buckley shines in her dual roles as the lesbian soprano Arabella, briefly married to a female partner and later finding celibate refuge singing for mocking Queen Mary (Charlotte Mills), and as Kate, one of the four troublesome and arguing performers whose tempestuous love affairs mirror those of their characters in Purcell’s opera The Fairy Queen. As Arabella, Buckley portrays the ongoing pain of heartbreak beautifully especially in her gorgeous rendition of the ballad ‘Cold and Raw’, and is hilarious as the contrasting Kate; overblown and melodramatic as the character is, Buckley finds truth in her performance.
Famed trumpeter Alison Balsom is an indescribable success; never has a trumpet been played so beautifully – except perhaps in the hands of virtuoso John Shore himself. Joshua James also impresses as the weedy, sickly Prince William, as does Sam Cox as the wordy waterman and James Garnon and Barbara Marten, both in a range of roles.
Gabriel is something of a departure for the Globe, and it is surely owing to the venue’s admirable boldness that such a glorious entertainment like this has been staged. That is the overriding strength of the Globe, its ability to constantly and exquisitely surprise audiences year on year, show after show. This production is without a doubt yet another exquisite surprise from the powerhouse team at the Globe that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
Gabriel is playing at the Globe Theatre until 18 August. For more information and tickets, see the Globe Theatre website.