I saw the trailer for the Oxford run of this show about 2 months ago (you can watch it by clicking here), and I would sometimes find myself singing the haunting melody from the promo without even realizing I had started. I was so excited for the concept, a steampunk progressive rock opera, but I made sure to keep my expectations in check in case I had to get let down. I am very happy to report that I did not need to take that precaution. The music was consistently fabulous throughout and the story, though complex, was rich with subtlety and interest beyond the main plot. I had the opportunity to meet with a few members of the cast and crew the next afternoon to get further insight into the show.
I don’t usually do a full synopsis of the books, movies and shows I review because I don’t like spoilers. But, in my experience with traditional opera one usually knows the story before the performance, which allows the audience to enjoy the beauty of the music and acting without struggling to understand a plot when there are no spoken words.
The story takes place in the city of New Albion, which grows and changes into a more industrial and more frightening place as you follow four generations of the McAlistair family through their tales of love, loss and the pursuit of power. The first, Annabelle, is a woman haunted by the voice of her overbearing father and the death of her first love. Though she is expelled from school and shunned by the medical community, she discovers a way to bring back the soul of her dearly departed Jasper and place it into a clockwork body, thus creating the first “doll.” For awhile Annabelle is happy, but Jasper is miserable after being ripped from Elysium and paraded on Annabelle’s arm. As the narrator so poignantly expresses, “that which pleases may not content,” and in the end Annabelle gives him his release in death, and packs away her notes and the clockwork body in the attic.
Years later, Annabelle’s formula for raising the dead is discovered by her son, Edgar. He has been recently rejected by Fay, who leaves him for another man. He is committed to winning her back through any means possible, and upon discovering his mother’s secret he creates a commercial empire by selling people the means to bring their loved ones back from the grave. He raises Fay’s father, who it turns out was Annabelle’s Jasper and places him in the same mechanical body. But, Edgar won’t allow Fay to see him unless she agrees to marry him. She is angered and sickened by his manipulation but agrees, and the twice-raised Jasper is trapped once again in his clockwork prison, unable to speak through any means but by channeling radio signals.
Their marriage is fraught with anger and resentment, and their son Byron grows up hating his father and his commercial empire, but loving Jasper, his ever-present companion and surrogate father figure. Meanwhile, the city has become overrun with dolls and their exploitation. Death has no longer become an ending, but a transitional phase, and the youth culture has embraced a hedonistic, devil-may-care attitude. Byron is the ring-leader and is trying to lead a political revolution against the corrupt government by actually running a totally disinterested Jasper for mayor of New Albion. Jasper, through his years of taking in songs through the airwaves, creates a lamentation that is soon taken up by all the dolls as they long for an end to their servitude. The sonorous sadness reaches the ears of Amelia, one of Byron’s followers, whose home life and unrequited affections lead her to a feeling of solidarity with the disenfranchised dolls and eventually to her suicide. The angry parents of New Albion turn on the dolls, blaming them for corrupting the youth and riots ensue where the dolls are rounded up and killed.
Byron manages to save his dear Jasper from the clutches of the martial law that follows, and then is never lifted. New Albion has become a dark and dangerous place where dolls are killed on the spot and anyone harboring one disappears. Within the walls of his mansion, his daughter Priscilla grows up with Jasper as her dearest friend, and Jasper feels love for her, his great-granddaughter, for the first time since becoming a doll. He doesn’t want to leave her, but longs for his death just the same. He is willing to sacrifice himself for her happiness, but when she finds out about his desire to die she is devastated and can’t stand to keep him against his wishes. She makes the bold and irreparable decision to report herself to the authorities, who arrive swiftly with death on their heels. One soldier hesitates when she looks into Priscilla’s eyes, awash with love and acceptance of her death, which leads to the soldier’s expulsion from the army. She is so moved by her experience that she starts to question an authority that would require her to kill someone just for loving something, and vows to bring the government down. But, as the narrator says, that is a story for another time.
It would be a misnomer to call the music of Paul Shapera “catchy” because that sounds too much like a pop song. I think the best, though somewhat graphic descriptor is the German ohr-wurm (earworm) because the songs burrow their way into your brain via your eardrums and come to roost. When I did my interview with some of the Dolls team, Zoe McGee, one of the directors and choreographers of the show, asked me what my favorite part was. I told her it was the song “The Movement”, which comes in Act 3, but after the interview I kept coming up with other favorites and other scenes that I liked just as well. The play is based on a concept album by the same name in 2013, and I think that starting with music that had to stand on its own really added to the overall quality of the songs.
The show was first done as a workshop, and later performed with a cast of 14. At Ed Fringe, the cast was cut in half and the roles double-cast in order to have a more compact and portable piece. The space at Venue 45 was compact and definitely would have been too crowded with a larger cast, but I couldn’t help but envision this show on a big stage with an elaborate clockwork New Albion rising in the background. The cast handled the quick changes very well and there was never a break in the action except for occasionally within a song when a larger set or a little bit more stage “business” would have given them a chance to keep moving. But, that is often the case with Fringe shows which need to be able to be put up and taken down in 10 minutes to make way for the next show. In lieu of a large set, they cleverly use a pop-up book to show the progression of New Albion as it becomes larger and more industrial, and as a paper artist I especially loved this convention. Emma Fleming (Annabelle, Amelia), says that she prefers the show in the more intimate setting of the small theater, but I could definitely see it being a grand spectacle as well.
Overall, I thought this was a fantastic show. It was the best thing that I have seen so far at the Fringe Festival and I would highly recommend it to not only Steampunk fans, but to anyone who wants to see a dynamic new musical. And who knows, maybe like Jaime Loyn (Edgar, Byron) you will find yourself falling in love with Steampunk because of this show! (Not familiar with Steampunk? Read more about it on my About Steampunk page.) I have done some acting and directing myself, and my mind is whirring with possibilities.
Even though the show starts at 10:45pm, the house was packed, so make sure to get your tickets ahead of time and get their early. There is a little cafe in the lobby and comfy couches so don’t worry about getting stuck out on the windy Edinburgh streets while you wait. The seating area covers two sides of the semi-thrust stage, so I doubt there is a bad seat in the house.
You can find the soundtrack available for purchase through Bandcamp, where you can also preview the songs.
You can watch the vimeo video about the original workshop here: vimeo.com/58431554
And of course, get your tickets for the Ed Fringe production here: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/dolls-of-new-albion-a-steampunk-opera
More to come:
The composer, Paul Shapera, has also completed two more “punk” operas, and the Clockwork Hart production team tells me they hope to come back to fringe again soon to perform at least one, though it could present some challenges. Filip Ferdinand Falk Hartelius, another director/choreographer of Dolls, told me a bit about the Dieselpunk show and I am very intrigued. It is meant to be less of a stage show and more of a radio show, which could make staging more difficult. It also goes a bit more “meta” with lyrics sung by characters about staying character. I will definitely be checking out this soundtrack, as well as the Atompunk finale to the trilogy of operas by the talented Shapera.
Find out more about Clockwork Hart and the Dolls of New Albion at their website: www.newalbiondolls.co.uk/
Find out more about Paul Shapera and his other albums at his Bandcamp page: http://mochalab.bandcamp.com/