A performer’s life is far from glamorous, particularly for those managing to eke out some sort of living in the business. Corporate gigs, theatre-in-education, skin work and small-scale touring is better than working in a call centre or bar, but this work is exhausting and usually demoralising. I remember similar days in my past life as an actor, particularly that panto tour to schools and social clubs in South Wales. The schools were fine; teachers kept order. But the social clubs were all loud, drunk adults, and kids hyped up on e-numbers who thought hitting the actors was the most hilarious thing ever. With two shows a day, six days a week for a month and a half, I keenly feel the anguish of opera troupe The Overtones’ pub booking in AJ Evans’ Dress Rehearsal, even though those days are long behind me. Despite kinship with the characters’ aspirations and conflicts, and fantastic singing, the clunky script, poor performances, and undeveloped characters make this a missed opportunity to showcase opera within the structure of a play.
The concept reads well on paper and it could be a great way to make opera approachable as well as demystify life as a performer: flipping between the pub floor gig, the dressing room and reserved mezzo Steph’s past, we see trouble within The Overtones cast and career goals clashing with reality, and some cracking opera numbers. There’s certainly scope for situation comedy as well as character-driven dramatic conflict. However, Evans’ script hovers in the liminal space between these styles, creating something that manages to be both unfunny and quite flat with hackneyed dialogue. Subplots and the flashbacks are neglected and left incomplete, making them feel gratuitous to the main plot thread. The first half is slow and little happens other than exposition, but after the interval, both tension and pace picks up. The final moment even has genuine emotional connection between two characters, something that is pointedly absent in the script up to this point.
The singing is excellently emotive, however. There’s enough book (albeit a poorly written one) to make Dress Rehearsal a play with music, but there’s enough music to suitably break up the simplistic dialogue. Five of the eight actors are opera singers, one is a pianist who sings and two are “just” actors. The singers are certainly good at their primary craft, but lack in their acting ability. Director Paola Cuffolo focuses more on staging than coaching truthful performances from her cast. There is some stylisation that, as a conceptual break from realism, is under used and lacks punch.
If Dress Rehearsal was a single act composed mainly of the current second half, it would be a much stronger play. As it is, it wanders aimlessly for quite some time before finding its purpose and conviction. Fortunately, the songs are welcome respite in what feels like something that well precedes a dress rehearsal.