The Original Chinese Conjuror review – Northern Opera pull off witty magic trick

Left Bank, Leeds
The strange case of magician Chung Ling Soo’s fatal encounter with a bullet is told with verve is this revival of Raymond Yiu’s music theatre gem

Since its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, when a whole range of leading European composers, from Berio and Ligeti to Henze, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies, eagerly explored its possibilities, music theatre has become a slippery, hard-to-define and largely unsatisfactory genre. But when it was first seen 12 years ago, staged on Southwold Pier as part of the 2006 Aldeburgh festival, Raymond Yiu’s The Original Chinese Conjuror seemed that rare thing, a piece of latter-day music theatre that was entirely musically and dramatically successful within its self-imposed constraints.

In telling the story of the early 20th-century magician Chung Ling Soo, aka William Robinson, who died on stage in 1918 when his most celebrated trick, catching a bullet in his mouth, went disastrously wrong, Yiu and his librettist Lee Warren had pared the action down to a sequence of 12 short scenes, with a cast of five singers and a minimum of stage trappings, underpinned by a score that revelled in its stylistic promiscuity.

Coming back to a score that one admired when it was new a decade or more ago is always nerve-wracking. Some pieces age better than others, and music theatre has always been particularly susceptible to cheap, modish effects. But encountering Chinese Conjuror again, directed by David Ward as part of Northern Opera Group’s Left Bank opera festival, was a reassuring experience. Its outstanding qualities – economical, unfussy drama combined with a wryly witty text and a score that careers happily from Broadway musical to 1960s expressionism via tango and Edwardian vaudeville – have stayed as fresh as ever.

Keith Pun plays the magician’s translator, with Rosemary Clifford and Louis Hurst.
Tautly choreographed … Keith Pun plays the magician’s translator, with Rosemary Clifford and Louis Hurst. Photograph: Pelly&Me Photography

Louis Hurst is Soo/Robinson, magic tricks and all this time, with Rosemary Clifford as Dot, his on- and offstage partner, who gets the best Broadway numbers to sing. Andrew Tipple is Alexander Herrmann, the “Napoleon of Necromancy”, who teaches Robinson all he knows; Keith Pun is the translator Chai Ping; while Alex Haigh slickly takes on a gallery of cameo roles.

It’s a tautly choreographed show, conducted with real punch by Lewis Gaston, though ideally it needs a less resonant space than Left Bank Leeds, where more of the words would come across, and the tangy ensemble writing would have a bit more edge.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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