David Sawer: Skin Deep

Opera North

Sadler's Wells Theatre, 20 February 2009 3 stars

skin deepDavid Sawer and Armando Iannucci's new operetta Skin Deep premiered to mixed reviews in Leeds in January, and thus came to Sadler's Wells in London last Tuesday with something of a point to prove.

The piece satirizes society's fixation with physical beauty, and it ridicules the surgical lengths people will go to in the hope of improving their appearances. The subject is an apt one for the first time librettist Iannucci. His caustic and incisive work as a writer, producer, performer, and director on such television shows as The Day Today, Alan Partridge, Time Trumpet, the Armando Iannucci Show, and most recently The Thick of It, mark him out as a satirist of the first order. An abiding concern for Iannucci is the notion of falsehood in appearance and speech, of feckless conceit and marauding buffoonery in those that should know better. A memorable scene from his eponymous show has him locked in a torturous internal dialogue, walking the streets, declaring to himself that everyone is faking it (their personae), and that we're all on the verge of being found out at any moment. Cosmetic surgery, the cringe (often) towards another category of deception, a higher level of fraud, thus seems a prime target for his ruthless pen. David Sawer’s first and previous opera, From Morning to Midnight, was itself quite a powerful, barbed piece of theatre that dealt interestingly with themes of greed and conceit. The pairing, and the programme, seemed apposite.

Yet I have to agree with other critics on this. The work failed to say anything much of interest about a subject which hardly lacks for contempt in the culture. It crucially held its subjects, and thus its audience, at arms length- all the hopeless and vain protagonists are essentially easy targets; the narrative contains little change or indeed conflict, and the redemption at the end is utterly, utterly hoky and banal. The plot falls apart in the overlong and muddled third act. The action is transplanted there from the clinic in the Swiss Alps where Needlemeier, the surgeon at the centre of the action, concocts his elixir of life made from the discarded parts of celebrities, to a sun-kissed California where an army of identikit Robert and Donnas (two subjects earlier perfected by the surgeon) are now essentially slaves to the elixir, without any personality or spirit of their own.

Skin DeepThe generic framework for the piece is apt, affording its creators as it does a certain freedom to invoke the satiric edge of Offenbach, and to use the formal and generic freedoms of the style. This works well in terms of loosening musical syntax with spoken dialogue and freeing up the discourse to jump quickly from style to style, number to number, and from ensemble to solo or duet. But the overall movement sacrifices local coherence to novelty, and the overriding tone of ridicule with which we are invited to view the protagonists obviates any possibility of Iannucci and Sawer actually offering some empathy, and garnering some insight out of that empathy, towards the prey of society's ills. Their ire is clearly directed more at a society which allows these things to take place than it is at individuals participating in the charade, but nevertheless one comes away from Skin Deep without once reconsidering one's opinions about cosmetic surgery in any real or meaningful way, instead slightly resenting the utter coldness of the approach. Iannucci's past work in television equally never enters into any sort of sincere dialogue with the objects of satire, but there his subjects-powerful people with little regard for reality and decency, or issues of fantastic ludicrousness in the culture-lend themselves to this sort of scornful approach. Here, where the issue is so much more personal, more visceral (it strikes to the heart of the physical after all), the treatment seems callous, even if it is often quite funny and precise.

This negative reaction is mitigated by some elements that work rather well within the piece. It has some rich, colourful, and eclectic music from Sawer. Fluent reminiscences of Britten and Birtwistle (the latter particularly in the bony, angular wind and snare opening to Act Two, which grows organically into a wild beat jazz fit), sit comfortably within a diverse score where the seductive power of cosmetic surgery is musically suggested by serpentine chromaticism in the three operation scenes, and the jocular macabre is evoked to great effect in for example Needlemeier's aria 'For I am Dr. Needlemeier'. The music marries a rhythmic vitality and a variety in the scoring (good use is made of tuned percussion, and of a saw and rattle), to a rich harmonic language of extended and chromatic polytonality. The score was performed well by an on-form and supple Opera North Orchestra and Chorus, who were led by a confident Richard Farnes. There is some subtle choreography too from Linda Dobell, and the lurid sets (Stewart Laing) and fluidity of movement in the action each facilitate well the chaotic movement of the show. Richard Jones' direction is largely spot on.

Skin DeepThe libretto moreover, although somewhat heartless as I have said, nevertheless contains some typically memorable and cruel lines from Iannucci (for example: 'If it's so sunny here, why is everyone frozen?', or after the Hollywood hunk Luke Pollock, played by a reliably durable Mark Stone, loses a testicle, he is described as 'an actor in search of a part'). The decision not to include surtitles was a sound one, much of the humour would of course have been lost by confusing the timing of the deliveries, and Sawer and the performers ensure that the text largely comes across well, that is at least until the third act, where the valedictory chorus is textually a mess. Skin Deep contains passages of great colour and variety. It boasts scenes of Rossinian frenzy where choruses vie with soloists and sense vies with chaos. It has some strong performances amongst the principals, particularly the sturdily-voiced and grubbily-sinister Geoffrey Dolton as Needlemeier, and a quietly strong but ultimately pitiable Heather Shipp as Donna, the surgeon's lover. It even steals a classic Day Today character, Barbara Wintergreen, for its own roving reporter Susannah Dangerfield (played well by Gwendoline Christie, though it's not until the third act, where the action has become (more) farcical, that her narration works well within the flow). But it just doesn't really work, despite its good moments and plethora of ideas.

By Stephen Graham

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