In 2013, I published a young adult novel about homophobic bullying in schools. Breaking Point told the story not just from the point of the victim, but also of the bullies and a teacher. On the initial free download period for the Kindle, it was downloaded more than 7,000 times and user reviews were largely positive.
A few years later, I started work on a sequel which, for various reasons, kept getting put to one side. I finally finished the first draft in the middle of last year, and Breaking Down has now been released in Kindle and paperback editions alongside a revised version of Breaking Point. The revised Breaking Point has a somewhat expanded text, but the narrative is largely the same, although it deviated slightly in the last couple of chapters.
In Breaking Point, James Marsh is sixteen years old and in his final year of high school. He has been suffering from bullying for months at the hands of Jason Mitchell and his friends but, as they return to school after the Easter break, Jason takes his tormenting to a whole new level. As James struggles to cope, a teacher at the school finds his hands tied when he attempts to help him, Jason spirals out of control, and a former friend of James tries to make amends.
In Breaking Down, the sequel, James is about to leave home to go to university, knowing that it might signal the end of his relationship with Paul. Jason has been trying to make amends for what he did at school, but his past is coming back to haunt him. And teacher Andrew Green is struggling with his mental health due to the stress of the events of two years earlier, with his boyfriend at a loss on how to help him. They all learn to realise that the effects of school bullying will be with them for life – whether victim, bully, or teacher.
NB. The Royal College of Music are presenting this Offenbach opera with alternating casts. This review refers to the performance of Friday March 15, 2019.
Sometimes we wait for so long for something to happen that, when it does, we approach it with trepidation. I fell in love with Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe about thirty or so years ago when I was about fourteen. I borrowed the Opera Rara recording from my local library and fell in love with it. I would like to put into words why this happened, but sometimes it it simply is not possible. Things happen. The recording (the only recording, as it happens) was out of print at the time, and this was long before being able to track such things down with eBay, and so I eventually borrowed the set so many times from the library that they told me to keep it. The next week, the library burned down. Life can be strange.
Sadly, Robinson Crusoe is performed rarely, but that meant that travelling to see the Royal College of Music production in Offenbach’s 200th birthday year was a must, despite the problems that I have with travelling these days. The biggest question was whether my beloved Crusoe would be what I hoped for in a fully-staged live performance. I knew in advance that Don White’s superb English version was being used, which was a good sign. I needn’t have worried.
Crusoe sits in a rather unique place within Offenbach’s works. Most of Offenbach’s operettas are a series of short numbers of two or three minutes linked by often rather extended sequences of dialogue (which can be very tiresome on recordings). At the other end of the scale are the “grand” operas The Tales of Hoffmann and Die Rheinnixen. Crusoe sits somewhere in between – the couplets, can-cans and waltzes of the operettas are all present and correct (along with farcical comedy at times), but there are other moments that are deadly serious, as well as lengthy arias and love duets. Straddling this slightly uncomfortable neither-one-thing-or-another position can no doubt be difficult, but the RCM handled it with ease – and the young voices are a huge benefit in this regard.
The opening act takes place in the sitting room of the Crusoe’s home, with Robinson planning to run away to sea. The current production had the rather novel idea of having the sitting room as a room-sized box in the centre of the stage. There were pros and cons with this – it conveys to the audience the way that Robinson feels confined at home, but the confined space does feel a little like an over-used gimmick (clever though it is) by the end of the first act. From a musical point, the audience is put at ease with a fine rendition of the overture (which never seems to crop up on Offenbach Overture CDs), before the conservative Crusoe family is revealed as Sir William reads from the Bible.
I assumed at the beginning of the evening as the vocals began that I would be writing that Timothy Edlin’s performance as Sir William would be one of the highlights of the evening, but it actually set the standard for the rest of the evening with fine performances from all, and everyone fitted the roles extremely well. This first musical section soon tells us that Crusoe is not a light and fluffy operetta – around twenty minutes of singing take place before there is any spoken dialogue. Holly-Marie Bingham was superb as the port-swigging Lady Crusoe, and Judith Lozano sings Edwige’s aria “I’m Not In Love” really quite beautifully (again, another part of the opera that should be well-known, a lovely piece of music). Katy Thomson is great fun as Suzanne the maid who happily tells us of the revenge she has taken in the past to men who have left her (with some surreal burlesque thrown in!), and Guy Elliott (or Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m not sure which) has great fun with his comic song that lightens the mood towards the end of the act.
Robinson Crusoe was cut heavily around the time it was first performed in 1867, but most of the lost music was restored during the 1970s for the Opera Rara recordings and most subsequent performances. Unless I was mistaken, there were a couple of cuts made to the restored score in the first act – the first being the second verse of the rather tedious “Togetherness” song (not a great loss, in all honesty), but the second was (unless I was mistaken) a small part of the love duet between Robinson and Edwige, which made the end of the first section end rather abruptly – and, in all honesty, if we’re going to sit there for well over three hours, cutting two minutes of music ain’t going to make much difference!
The second act is in two scenes, the first being totally taken up by Glen Cunningham’s Robinson and Lauren Joyanne Morris’s take on Man Friday. Cunningham really comes into his own here – alone on the stage for the first six minutes or so, delivering the opening aria of the act, and changing character from the rather naive young man of the opening act to an almost father-like figure towards Friday, which is all handled extremely well. Robinson’s costume for the island scenes is a little…unusual – rather like a pair of pyjamas that have grown fur, or if you are of a certain age, he does rather start to resemble Bungle from Rainbow with all that facial hair and the fur suit, and I hope for Mr Cunningham’s sake his beard doesn’t take on a life of its own again during the next performance: no performer likes a flapping moustache (been there, done that!).
Rather oddly, seemingly in a nod to political correctness or, as the programme note suggests, “cultural appropriation,” the word “Master” is removed entirely from the opera when Friday is talking to Robinson and is replaced by “Crusoe.” While this may have been done with the best intentions, the opera is set in the 1800s when Friday would have probably called Robinson “Master” – and if they were in a friend relationship instead, surely she would call him by his first name and not his surname (but presumably “Robinson” has too many syllables to fit the music!). Bearing this sensitivity to the word “master” in mind, it then seems doubly odd that Friday, a part generally played by a non-white singer is here played by a caucasian – and played very well, I might add – but given the recent furore over whitewashing (remember West Side Story at the Proms last year), I would think this was more of a sensitive issue than the word “master!” It would be interesting to find out the thinking behind these various decisions – and, of course, 99% of the audience would not be aware of the change to the wording in the libretto.
The first scene of the second act contains some really lovely music, most notably the lengthy duet between Robinson and Friday, but dramatically the scene doesn’t really go anywhere – something that is less noticeable on a recording. Conversely, much happens in the second scene of Act II, and it is probably the highlight of the whole opera (both on CD and on stage). Here we get a chorus of waltzing and can-canning (not at the same time) cannibals, amongst other things. Rhys James Batt is extremely good as Jim Cocks, the Bristolian who ran away to sea ten years earlier but is now the cannibals’ chef! A gifted comedian with great stage presence, he manages to perform both uproariously funny elements of his part with the more serious ones. Toby and Suzanne’s lengthy duet is great fun (and the dancing cannibals is a lovely and unexpected touch), and Juliet Lozano takes on and conquers with panache the stunning waltz song which is the only relatively well-known number from the entire opera (thanks to a recording by Joan Sutherland). Also of note here is the beautiful ensemble number that takes place just prior to the waltz, which starts with just one person singing (Friday) and then Offenbach adds layer upon layer upon layer, showing just how great a composer he could be when he really set his mind to it.
Sadly, he didn’t set his mind to it very much in Act three. On the Opera Rara recording, it is obvious that, musically, it has little of the ambition or, indeed, charm of the first two acts. One could almost picture Offenbach running behind schedule and producing a few numbers overnight to get the score finished (shades of Arthur Sullivan) – and who would put that past him? After what has come before, it is a very disappointing thirty-five minutes or so from the point of view of the score. The arias for Friday and Edwige are forgettable (although well-performed in the new production), and the “bliss” duet is a mix of bland music with a notably inane lyric: “Yes, this must be what bliss is, bliss is what this is.” Surely Don White could have done better than that?!
A number from the restored score gets the chop here – Suzanne’s (not very musically exciting) song about Man Friday causes all kinds of problems for a 2019 audience: “Coloured skin’s not a sin/God made you, Friday too/And in the end that’s all that counts.” Yikes – and that’s one of the more palatable sections of the lyrics of the number! It’s such a memorable number on the CD that I had forgotten it even existed until I just went to check something else (act three doesn’t get played much!). Clearly, the lyrics are outdated and it’s easy to see why this would be cringeworthy/offensive performed today – but it does reiterate that Friday was written as a non-caucasian character!
But there is good news regarding Offenbach’s rather woeful third act. Somehow, the RCM managed to make far more out of it than I ever thought would be possible. Through a mix of hamming it up and even audience participation (the audience had had two intervals by this point and may well have been slightly imbibed, which helped with the latter element), the cast had everyone on side within minutes – helped along by the still-all-too-relevant quartet where Man Friday watches on as the others tell him “there’s no place like England/As you’ll soon begin/to learn when you get there/if they let you in!” Indeed!
In short, for cast, crew, orchestra (just wait for their wonderful rendition of the Entracte to Act II – again, why isn’t it better known), and Offenbach himself, Robinson Crusoe is a triumph. From the glorious duets and arias through to the pantomime of the third act, it was certainly worth the wait of thirty years to finally see a production and I congratulate all involved. It’s all too easy with a piece such as this to not take the serious bits seriously, but that minefield is well-judged.
One really has to wonder why this piece, and Offenbach in general, is so ignored in the UK. Are we really such a bunch of dull serious opera goers that we can’t have a bloody good time while we’re there more than once in a blue moon? We pay enough to go! There really is so much good music within Crusoe (and many other Offenbach works) and it is a shame that there is only the one recording, and it would be nice to hear one in the original French. A DVD/blu-ray release of a performance would be welcome also (I’d certainly pay good money for a copy of this one) – surely we have more than enough Hoffmann’s to keep us happy for a few years? On the plus side, there has been signs that opera companies are becoming more willing to try out forgotten scores on audiences during the last few years. English Touring Opera are presenting Rossini’s Elisabeth I this year, and gave us Donizetti’s The Wild Man of the West Indies a couple of years back. Even the National G&S Company toured with The Sorcerer last year.
My love of Crusoe remains as strong as it always has been. I may be far more cynical now than when I first heard it, but there are so many wonderful moments in the score that it never fails to put a smile on my face – and Suzanne’s line “what’s the use of dreaming dreams when you know they will never, never come true” is so beautiful and comes at us out of nowhere that those bars alone can still bring me to tears.