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Theatre Review Gloriana’s midwife

GORDON PARSONS is thrilled by the dramatisation of the relationship between a gay composer and his unmarried female assistant

Ben and Imo
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


MARK RAVENHILL’s intimate two-hander, deals with the intense relationship between Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst as the composer struggles with the commission to create a grand opera to celebrate the advent of the “new Elizabethan” age and the 1953 coronation of the young queen. It is an adaptation for theatre of his own 2013 radio play.

There are inevitable difficulties involved in the journey from the radio theatre of the imagination to the theatre of the stage. Where the former could instantly transport the listener from Britten’s work room in Aldeburgh to Covent Garden for the final preparations for the initially disastrous Gloriana, director Erica Wyman’s limited stage, dominated by a central grand piano, anchors the production in space and time. 

Yet, in fact this works extremely well. The play, claustrophobically, centres on the turbulent relationship between Britten’s emotionally immature creative genius and Imogen Holst, transferring her devotion from her dead father Gustav’s art, to the man who is expected to put Britain, as a nation, on the opera world scene.

The casting is perfect with Samuel Barnett’s Ben switching in the blink of an eye from child-like dependency to petulant bouts of savage adolescent cruelty, and Victoria Yeates’s Imo mothering his selfishness while at the same time trying to keep both the opera and its doubting creator on track. She also strives to protect her own independence as she senses she is falling in love with the man as well as his music.

The play was originally titled Imo and Ben. The change was probably made as Benjamin Britten is the box office name, but the greater interest lies in Yeates’s Imogen who is at first all brusque and brisk school house matron coping with a life she has dedicated to music at the expense of her own femininity.

Ravenhill’s dialogue sparkles along. He gets in some barbs at the British Establishment with Britten describing the queen and duke of Edinburgh’s response to his opera as showing “dull minds, dull eyes and dull hearts.”

He also reminds us that when, at our current time, the arts in general in Britain are financially in a dire state, that even in the post-war wasteland of 1953 the nation could afford to set up the Arts Council and invest in the arts as never before. 

Runs until April 6. Box office: 0789 331-111,


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