The Boatswain’s Mate review – Ethel Smyth’s comic opera has atmosphere and sass

Show caption Consummate acting: Beca Davies as Mary Ann with Philippe Durrant in The Boatswain’s Mate at Grimeborn festival Photograph: Lidia Crisafulli Opera The Boatswain’s Mate review – Ethel Smyth’s comic opera has atmosphere and sass Grimeborn festival, Arcola theatre, London

This lively revival of Smyth’s one-act opera lets the comedy shine although not all of her witty libretto carries Flora Willson Thu 11 Aug 2022 15.37 BST Share on Facebook

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When composer and writer Ethel Smyth died aged 86 in May 1944, the Daily Telegraph branded her “one of the most gifted women of all times”. The Sunday Times obit was more explicit in its ambivalence: “Whatever the ultimate verdict on her music, she herself was magnificent.”

There are no ultimate verdicts in music, thankfully – just endlessly shifting fashions. And, after decades out in the cold, Smyth is having a good year: Glyndebourne opened its summer season with The Wreckers and the Proms has featured several of her works, including the beguiling Double Concerto for Violin and Horn. The determined work of smaller companies and individuals nevertheless remains crucial to the Smyth legacy. Always thoughtful, Grimeborn festival – rooted in hipster mecca Dalston – first staged her comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate in 2018 and has revived it as part of this year’s offering.

Pitch-perfect: Robert Winslade Anderson, John Upperton and Shaun Aquilina in The Boatswain’s Mate. Photograph: Lidia Crisafulli

Directed by Cecilia Stinton, the production apparently moves the action to 1950s Margate – though I would have struggled to locate it so specifically in time or space solely from costumes (“vintage”) and minimalist set (wooden decking, a washing line, a couple of old tables and stools). I also never worked out why the excellent piano trio performing a bold, bare-bones reduction of Smyth’s score were wearing woollen beanies.

Yet there was atmosphere aplenty, riding above all on the consummate acting of Beca Davies as Mary Ann (who transformed that decking into a beach with her reader-persecuted-by-bored-boyfriend routine during the overture) and Josephine Goddard’s warm, deliciously sassy turn as Mrs Waters – the no-nonsense publican pursued by John Upperton’s wannabe-heroic suitor Harry Benn. Robert Winslade Anderson’s performance as the idiot police officer called to a fake murder committed by Mrs W (in response to a fake burglary staged by Benn) stood out among the male roles.

Better diction and more careful balance in the Arcola’s tiny space would have helped more of Smyth’s remarkably witty libretto to carry. But her musical jokes – from a parody of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’s iconic opening to a take-off of Verdi’s Falstaff and a passage of overwrought pseudo-Rachmaninoff as Mrs W embraces her inner romantic – remained pitch-perfect.