N&N Festival Diary: Tuesday, May 13

Ian Collins Tonight sees what is for me the most eagerly awaited event at this year's bumper festival. So here are the four reasons why I reckon that Armonico Consort Opera's show in Yarmouth our top-of-the-bill treat…THE VENUE: Looking like a fantasy castle, the Yarmouth Hippodrome was constructed in 1903 by legendary showman George Gilbert.

Ian Collins

Tonight sees what is for me the most eagerly awaited event at this year's bumper festival. So here are the four reasons why I reckon that Armonico Consort Opera's show in Yarmouth our top-of-the-bill treat…

THE VENUE: Looking like a fantasy castle, the Yarmouth Hippodrome was constructed in 1903 by legendary showman George Gilbert. Now Britain's only surviving purpose-built circus building, the sprightly structure has been barely altered in 105 years.

Frankly, I could have a great night out in this cross between a Big Top and an East Anglian Royal Albert Hall if the arena was empty. For it is peopled with brilliant ghosts.


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Lily Langtry sang here, Max Miller joked, Houdini escaped, and Lloyd George (political performer extraordinaire) addressed a rousing rally. Charlie Chaplin is believed to have featured as a child actor before finding fame in America.

As well as a circus ring attracting the world's top clowns, acrobats and animal trainers (the latter in the era before cruelty-free entertainment), there have been cinematic and stage variety shows and war-time service as a shooting range.

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Thanks to brothers Jack and Peter Jay over the past 27 years, the Hippo has survived as a treasured attraction. Often used as a film, video and photographic location, the antique venue hosts dance displays, comic capers, pop and rock gigs, orchestral concerts and traditional Christmas and summer spectaculars.

It's always a thrilling moment in the eight-week summer circus when the pit fills with water for a performance by synchronised swimmers - a splashy feat echoed only in Moscow, Blackpool and Los Vegas and now, every four years, the Olympic Games.

THE COMPANY: Armonico Consort Opera has rocketed to fame by presenting exciting, innovative and accessible opera productions in surprising venues up and down the land.

Its opening take on Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen was a riotous revelation at the Yarmouth Hippodrome in last year's festival. For me the manic and acrobatic exercise provided the operatic equivalent of Matthew Bourne's revolutionary Swan Lake.

Oh course, the company was promptly rebooked - and with a new festival commission to boot.

THE PROGRAMME: Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand in a beautifully-judged double bill dating from the late 21st century and updated for 2008.

First comes Dido and Aeneas, a stirring saga of doomed love and Purcell's only complete chamber opera, albeit still at less than an hour in length. Before his death when barely 36, the key composer of the Restoration, and of English Baroque, had completed a mass of music, including tributes for the funeral of Queen Mary and the near-legendary saga of Boudica. But with those haunting anthems When I Am Laid In Earth and Remember Me (Dido's Lament), Dido is his masterpiece.

The perfect foil to the above drama is the farcical Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme - The Bourgeois Gentleman - the final collaboration between playwright Moliere and composer Lully which premiered at the court of Louis XIV in 1670.

This savage satire on social climbing, poking fun at both the vulgar pretensions of the middle classes and the snobbish vanity of the aristocracy, was given an exotic, Turkish edge - prompted by an ambassador's claim that the court of the Ottoman sultan was greater and grander than that of the Sun King. Time to make merry.

And time, now, for a new twist to the story…

THE WRITER: Although his father was district commissioner of Nyasaland (later Malawi), Kit Hesketh-Harvey is now an honoured son of Stoke Ferry…and London…and Cornwall…where he and his actress wife Kate Rabett currently reside.

A Canterbury Cathedral chorister turned Cambridge choral scholar under John Rutter, our Kit completed his classical training with post-graduate studies at Oxford under Stephen Sondheim. But by then the erstwhile Cambridge Footlights star was established as an all-round entertainer.

His screenwriting has ranged from the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film Maurice to recent series of The Vicar of Dibley. A presenter of TV and radio shows on antiques, cabaret and domestic architecture, he is a regular panellist on Just A Minute and Quote Unquote.

As consistent purveyors of fine comic cabaret over the past couple of decades, Kit and the Widow take my gold medal (with Fascinating Aida winning silver). I only have to think of Kit's camp 1990 rendition of a raging Margaret Thatcher, bundled out of office and so denied all the glory of the Gulf War to cap the fun of the Falklands, to burst out laughing.

He has translated many operas and adapted classics such as Offenbach's La Belle Helene for English National Opera and Smetena's The Bartered Bride for the Royal Opera House.

He scored a huge success with a hilarious version of Mozart's The Magic Flute for Armonico Consort, before that collaboration was revived with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Something tells me that in our karaoke age, with the all the absurd pretensions of superficial celebrity, Mr Hesketh-Harvey has found the perfect vehicle for up-to-the-minute mockery.

THE PAST, THE FUTURE: An audio introduction to tonight's Yarmouth double bill, to be played on the special coach being laid on from Norwich, can be seen and heard on our festive website (www.nnfestival.org.uk).

Alternatively, you could opt to be astonished and please the festival's main sponsor National Express East Anglia by travelling via rail. The train journey across the Acle marshes, with a landscape of derelict windmills giving way to the great sculpture park of the Scroby Sands Windfarm, really is a transport of delight.

If you can't make the Yarmouth Hippodrome tonight, there is a second local bite at this cherry on Friday courtesy of the splendid Bury St Edmunds Festival running from now until May 25 (www.buryfestival.co.uk; box office: 01284 769505).

And the Bury venue - the wonderfully restored Theatre Royal, England's sole surviving Regency playhouse - is one of the very few in the country with a wow factor to rival our dear old seaside Hippo.

WHAT'S ON

8pm NoFit State Circus, Earlham Park.

8.15pm Armonico Consort Opera, Yarmouth Hippodrome.

8.30pm Teatro de los Sentidos, Indulge (Queen Street).

t For a brochure with full listings of all events this year, phone 01603 877750 (or visit www.nnfestival.org.uk). To book tickets call 01603 766400.

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