Category Archives: Four Mice

A TASTE OF HONEY Lowry, Salford and touring

SIXTY YEARS OR ONE MILE AWAY  –  Greater-Manchester guest critic HELEN GASKELL REVELS IN GRIT AND SKILL 

 

Ah, to watch a classic play in the place it was written.  Working class Salford girl Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey at 19, after being disappointed on  a trip to see Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme.  She reckoned she could do better: of course she was right, and a classic was born.

Recap, for those not familiar with this  northern classic. It is the late 1950s, and 15 year old Jo (Gemma Dobson)  lives in squalor with her vampy, sex-kitten mother Helen (Jodie Prenger).  After Helen swans off to marry a drunken, violent younger man (Tom Varey) Jo is left to fend for herself.  She falls in love with a black sailor named Jimmie, played with perfection in this instance by Durone Stokes.  After he too leaves her in the lurch, she finally catches a break and falls in with her gay friend Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) – until everything starts falling apart.

Context is key. It is too easy to forget that when it was written, mixed race relationships were extremely taboo and homosexual relationships illegal.  Much of the play hinges on this, and younger audience members might be forgiven for finding some plot points slightly confusing.  For example, Geoffrey might still face persecution for being gay today, but unlikely to find himself homeless when still able to pay his rent.

The production does not attempt to draw clumsy parallels or score political points.  It is unashamedly a period piece.  But its themes are not irrelevant to our current situation: in fact, the poverty  -well depicted in the set  – of the 50s flat Jo and Helen live in would certainly be recognisable to many not a mile away from the Lowry today.  Jo can, at least, turn on her gas stove, and Geoffrey can afford to buy a packet of then-exotic pasta without resorting to a visit to a food bank.   We are deep in I, Daniel Blake territory.

  The National Theatre does not disappoint: the production is absolutely superb, with some of the cleverest staging imaginable. i=It  benefits from the genius incorporation of a live band scattered across the stage, and light smoke giving a wonderfully dingy feel to the already-dirty set. Hildegard Bechtler, set and costume designer, has done an impeccable job of capturing poverty and squalor;  Paul Anderson’s lighting design is highly commended: he is not afraid to let in the dark.   Finally, the team have worked well together: barely noticeable visual tweaks and stolen moments between scenes say as much as the actors themselves.  A dirty tablecloth is replaced with a clean one; a silent dance is glimpsed between absent Jimmie and besotted Jo; a bare lightbulb gets a shade.  This  baked-in aura of northern grit takes weight off the actors, and Delaney’s  natural wit shines through.  Too often British plays of this era are marred by hammy, OTT acting, but not here.  Nearly every performance is outstanding.  It is frankly marvellous to see a gay man portrayed without camp, a lothario as a romantic, and domestic violence no less terrifying due to its subtlety.  

And the singing – gosh, the singing.  Not a croak or a bum note in evidence – nothing at all to distract from the wonderful use of contemporaneous music, which is seamlessly blended into the production. Itwould be perfection, if it were not for the fact that it is hard to suspend disbelief far enough to see a 28 year old woman play a 16 year old.  Dobson is a superb actress, but there are others who could successfully assist an audience in clambering over that mental hurdle.  Do not let that put you off.

 

 

box office   http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-taste-of-honey-uk-tour . On tour until 16th November.

Rating: Four   4 Meece Rating

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BIG THE MUSICAL           Dominion,  W1       

GUEST REVIEWER BEN DOWELL SAYS HANKS FOR THE MEMORY , AND BRAVELY FACES THE WEIRDNESS

 

This is a lavish revival of the 1996 musical version of the 1988 Tom Hanks fantasy comedy, complete with rootin’ tootin’ orchestra, smashing sets and a very capable cast. It must have cost a bomb to put on, and iS visually spectacular, thrilling entertainment.

 

In case you need reminding of the story, 12-year-old Josh Baskin wants to be “big” (ie grown up)  to impress a pretty, slIghtly older, girl at his school .  His wish is granted following a mysterious encounter with a slot machine at a fairground. His parents think this adult who suddenly emerges at breakfast has kidnapped their son and Josh can only convince his best friend of the truth of what has happened. He flees into a  (very dangerous-looking) New York, joins an ailing toy company which has lost the knack of finding what kids find fun,   and revives its fortunes. He also meets his grown-up love interest Susan Lawrence there.

 

It may feel a little odd though, in this age of Me Too and heightened sexual awareness,  to revisit a story about a boy who actually finds what looks like proper love with a lonely adult woman. The sort of thing might have been acceptably quirky and downright amusing in 1988, but feels a little weird today.

 

But it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening. As the young version of our hero Josh, Jamie O’Connor is sweet and very capable at belting out his tunes, and Jay McGuinness (of popstar and Strictly fame)  is also very adroit as the Big Baskin, moving with the right amount of childlike awkwardness (just as Tom Hanks did in the film) and really holding his own with big numbers like This Isn’t Me and When You’re Big.

 

As Susan, the pop star Kimberley Walsh hit just the right caustic notes early on as a cynical office drone, and is sweet as the woman who finds love in this unlikely quarter and has her perspective changed. She can, as we know, sing extremely well.

 

There is fun to be had. The moment when Josh meets her friends at a dinner party is laced with brilliantly knowing jokes, as is the moment when they fall against each other and he finds his reaction in his nether regions not quite what he is expecting. He has just turned 13 after all. There is also a scene when the two seemingly do go off and have sex, and the ironies of Josh’s song when they are alone together (“Do You Want To Play Games’) are obvious, but no less funny when Susan can’t believe what she is hearing.

 

Walsh also relishes the moments when her character thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, praising his innocence and directness, in contrast to all the sad sacks she’s been shacked with. Her songs also  give a poignant sense of her loneliness and yearning. The parting of the ways is movingly and sensitively done.

 

So, all in all,  smashing fun if you can cope with the fact that at the heart of it is a power-relationship dynamic raising slightly akward questions.   But not in a Big way.

 

box office 0844 847 1775.  to  2 Nov

rating four 4 Meece Rating

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HANSARD Lyttelton, SE1

OLD TIMES,  OLD  SORROWS: BEFORE THE RAINBOW

 

With Parliament in uproar upriver ,  the NT hit a luckily apt moment to stage Simon Woods’ first play and promote it as a  “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class”.  Just the night to hurl  some fine invective at an audience fancying a torture-a-Tory session.  It’s  a tight 90-minute two hander about an Etonian Conservative MP in a profoundly unhappy marriage to a wife with passionately sarcastic socialist beliefs, both of them overshadowed by a tragedy they can’t speak – until the cathartic end when we find that the torture is hardly political at all. 

 

      It’s set in 1988: a weary decade in to the decaying rule of Margaret Thatcher, when the local government act, pandering to the scared old right,   brought in the hated Section 28 rule that a school “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” complete with  that insulting phrase about “pretended family relationships”.     For younger readers who may naively imagine  a binary political split on the question,  it’s worth mentioning that the thaw was coming:  only two years later the Conservative John Major invited Ian McKellen to discuss gay rights, and that while the repeal was completed under Blair it was Cameron who brought in equal marriage.  Time moved on.  Parties (well, not the DUP) move with it.

 

But it was a hot issue. This section 28 seems at first in he play to be just one of the triggers of the wife Diana’s fury.    Lindsay Duncan, frailly elegant, still in her dressing gown at 11am,  stalks around her drab-chic lonely Cotswold kitchen conveying from the start a disturbing sense of a sharp intelligence wasted, and wifely irritation at the years of “adoring looks, headscarves, twinsets and casual racism – best supporting wife”.    But subtly,  beneath it lies  a more personal  anger whose cause only gradually emerges.    Alex Jennings as MP Robin , a weary political careerist, seems at first just quackingly posh and amiably assured, with the air of a husband well used to mocking bickering – the pair often spark beautifully off one another as they run through all-too-familiar differences about diversity, victimhood, poverty,  and his suspicion of novels and ghastly liberal  theatregoers (we enjoyed that – “a narrow world of appalling people trying to understand themselves” instead of doing real jobs.  

 

     .  There are many laughs.  But Robin  is no dumb insensitive lump of right-wingery.  The lawn he rolled day after day to flatten out lumps is being demolished by foxes, and his flattened certainties  unearthed uncomfortably by human reality.    Vulnerabilities widen in both,  in the final furious revelation. We are prepared for it, with quite nice control (though the bickering goes on a bit too long) as we work out that the couple  had a son at one point, and that when something terrible happened  Robin’s mother “a cross between Nancy Mitford and Attilla the Hun” kept her hair appointment the next day.  She didn’t believe in all this emotional slop either, or teach her son about it . 

 

        Best not to reveal all,  but it is so finely acted and tightly directed by Simon Godwin that the perennial liberal -versus-Tory,  Toynbee ’n Tebbitt,  Punch ’n Judy conflict is not really the point at all.    Grief is, and stiff upper lips, and the legacy of British repression.  Oh, and  the fact that yes, there was a time not so long ago  when 75%of the nation polled said homosexuality was wrong , and a lot of otherwise  quite decent people dreaded encountering it.   Regrettable, wrong, cruel,   but true.

 

BOX OFFICE  nationaltheatre.org.uk       to  25  nov

 In cinemas 7 November    www.ntlive.com

Rating   four  4 Meece Rating

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CABILDO Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI SWOONS OVER SWASHBUCKLING  AT GRIMEBORN

Director Emma Jude Harris “couldn’t believe her luck” when she discovered Cabildo, the only opera by pioneering composer Amy Beach: her witty, dynamic production of this passionate chamber piece glows with humanity and joy. Set in the modern day, but incorporating an extensive period flashback to 1812, Cabildo tells the story of Mary (expressive soprano Helen Stanley, in gingham shirt, ripped denim and cowboy heels), trapped in a loveless marriage to Tom (a sonorous Joseph Buckmaster, resplendent in a TRUMP 2020 baseball cap) as they visit the Cabildo, a museum you can still explore today in New Orleans, amongst a small group of tourists. The Barker (eyecatching Beru Tessema) tells the tale of Pierre Lafite, a “handsome, daredevil pirate” who was imprisioned there: Mary, her imagination afire, remains behind the group in Lafite’s cell, and drifts off to sleep. Mary’s subsequent dream, or vision, of Lafite becomes the main body of the opera: we find him imprisioned, desperate for news of the Falcon, the ship on which his lady-love Valerie was travelling, but is feared lost. Meanwhile, Lafite is in prison ironically suspected of Valerie’s murder, thanks to a bracelet she gave him as a secret love token, the truth of which he refuses to reveal for honour’s sake. Dominique, a servant (a sweet-toned Alexander Gebhard), arrives to say the fate of the Falcon is uncertain, but America needs Lafite and all his pirate crew to defend New Orleans against the British. Dominique says Lafite’s prison door ‘will be opened’: but the person who opens it is actually the dripping, drowned ghost of Valerie, driving her lover on to deeds of heroism in her name, in one of the most romantic and erotically charged duets I’ve ever seen outside of Wagner. Tragically, as the passion soars, we suspect we are veering away from history into poor Mary’s fantasy of what love could or should be: Amy Beach herself was married at 18 to a husband 24 years older than her, who forbade her from ever studying composition formally. This depiction of a woman whose imagination is a wild ocean of creativity, but whose life is a humdrum prison created by men, must be a self-portrait of Beach on some level: we also might think of George Eliot’s great heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. Harris draws a poignant contrast between men in the ‘real world’ at the beginning (leering, oafish, and predatory, taking upskirting photos when a girl is distracted) and the hero of Mary’s desire: sincere, brave, honourable, and utterly fictional. Welcome to single life in the 21st century.

Emma Jude Harris’ approach is full of colour and clever physical detail: she also has a nice eye for humour. When Pierre Lafite throws his greatcoat to the ground in despair, a mesmerised Mary snatches it up to bury her face in its folds, like a groupie at a rock gig, sliding to the floor in an hysteria of passion. Alistair Sutherland’s rich bass and magnetic stage presence make for an exceptionally compelling Lafite, full of tense machismo and inner idealism, a romantic fantasy of a pirate straight off the pages of Frenchman’s Creek – I think swooning is allowed. Alys Roberts’ delicate yet commanding Valerie exerts a hypnotic power over him, her penetrating, elegant soprano brimming with emotion, and the chemistry between the two feels cracklingly real. John Warner directs a trio from the piano with characteristic flair. It’s a blast.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI 

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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TREEMONISHA Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS JOPLIN TROUBLINGLY FUN

Scott Joplin was rightly proud of Treemonisha, an opera for which he wrote both libretto and score; it was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime, much to his pain, but its eventual premiere in 1972 led to Joplin being awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Musically, Treemonisha is a rare and precious artefact, preserving the sounds and rhythms of slave songs in the cotton fields which Joplin would have known from childhood, something few other composers have ever been in a position to do from known experience – and then bring to an opera stage. It’s a gorgeous score, always easy on the ear and rich with dense umami harmonies throughout, especially in Joplin’s gifted choral writing, with several animated numbers recalling Joplin’s prowess in ragtime. The opera is surprisingly light, given that it depicts life on a plantation eighteen years after the abolition of slavery: a community of freed slaves struggles to shape their new society, besieged by the various temptations of alcoholism, religious fervour, superstition and greed. When the educated young girl Treemonisha is stolen by some “conjurors”, part way between pedlars and witch doctors, the village rise up in fury to avenge her: but Treemonisha herself pleads for mercy for her captors, reminding everyone that to return bad deeds for bad leaves us no better than those who tried to hurt us in the first place. Persuaded to choose the better moral path, the village leave off their vigilante justice, and proclaim Treemonisha leader. The opera closes with a joyous dance celebrating the fact that happiness is restored to all: “The Slow Drag”.

Spectra Ensemble’s production for Grimeborn is as accomplished an account of Treemonisha as you could ever hope to see. The cast is excellent, with wonderful singing across the board. Grace Nyandoro’s cutesy Treemonisha doesn’t have much dramatic depth, though Nyandoro’s soprano is startlingly pretty; Samantha Houston’s tired, bluesy Monisha is much more sophisticated. Caroline Modiba’s Lucy is beautifully drawn, Modiba’s smooth, appealing voice making you wish Lucy had a bigger part. Rodney Earl Clarke takes a brilliant double role as the gruff, sceptical alcoholic Ned and the intoxicatingly enthusiastic Parson Alltalk, an early operatic version of Bishop Michael Curry. Edwin Cotton’s charming Remus bounces around the stage after Treemonisha like a gleeful puppy, his warm tenor thrilling at times, tender at others. Njabulo Madlala feels like true luxury casting for Zodzetrick, the conjuror whose spurious trade in “bags o’ luck” earns him Treemonisha’s displeasure at the outset, Madlala’s well-rounded baritone effortlessly filling the Arcola. The chorus of Aivale Cole, Deborah Aloba, Devon Harrison and Andrew Clarke (also bringing noticeable charisma to the smaller role of Andy) are all stunning. Director Cecilia Stinton has worked hard, with choreographer Ester Rudhart, to foment action and tension on stage, keeping the audience’s attention focused through the numbers: all the characters feel as real as they can, and seem to inhabit a real world, thanks to Raphaé Memon’s elegantly restrained design, using packing crates, a washing line and a rather troubling tree (which opens festooned with manacles and a noose) to suggest the lost world of a plantation, and people, abandoned by the ‘white folks’.

A thoroughly accomplished account, and musically delicious: but it is hard to ignore the fact that Treemonisha is a troublingly naïve piece to view from a post-colonial standpoint today. One exhilaratingly dark moment comes when Treemonisha, finding her captors bound, furiously orders the village to “set them free”: it only takes seconds for the penny to drop, across the stage, that every single one of them knows what it is like not to be free. Their subsequent choice of the moral high ground is noble; their election of Treemonisha, laudable and groundbreaking in its time. But Joplin – perhaps understandably – shies away from driving his point home, and “The Slow Drag” feels like an intellectually flat end, fun though it is musically. Treemonisha has been educated, but her first act as leader is just to get everyone dancing again; this can’t help but feel frustrating. The earlier part of the opera only refers to their situation in the most glancing terms; the noose and the manacles are helpful visual reminders of the full context of the piece, because you don’t hear it very loudly from Joplin. Stinton wisely lets Joplin’s vision be, rather than writing the subtext large: the very fact he didn’t feel he could say more about slavery and its legacy in this opera speaks volumes, and troubles you for days afterwards.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646  (To 31 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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THE DOCTOR Almeida, N1

MEDICINE AND THE MORAL MOB…

   

  The play Professor Bernhardi  had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting  and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence.  Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov,  a doctor;  he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust  was rising.  The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs  – urgently and exhilaratingly    to our own.  

 

      The doctor – here a woman, Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital.  A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion.  Her Catholic parents,  hurrying home, send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites.  He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realize she was dying. She refuses the priest entry.  But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all.  The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.   

 

      Icke takes this century-old story and hurls it, with a violent drumbeat from  above the bare stage,  into the combative craziness of the modern world .  The row, alas,  will be all too recognizable to a 21c  medical establishment (think of the death threats to Great Ormond St doctors over Charlie Gard).  He conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain,  pressure-cooker populism,  political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims.   Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind ,  and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters.  Often one is declared as being of a different race: it is oddly refreshing to hear a white man excoriating the fact that he’s the only black one in the team, and to have a white Irish priest referred to as having been insulted as a black man when he was barred entry to the girl’s ward.   I am not sure why this works, but it does.  It certainly ramps up the absurdity of identity politics. 

        

          Quite apart from Schnitzler’s original issues of antisemitism,  religious mistrust, professional authority and the argument over false hope being in a patient’s ‘best interests’,  Icke hurls in every available extra issue:  racism, sexism, colonial guilt,  transgender identity,  LGBT,  Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage.     As one doctor cries “Last time we chopped up the world into  separate identity groups we know where that led.  To tattoos on people’s wrists”.    Accused of child murder and Nazism  Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage  (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments)  will lead to an X-factor world.   Her  own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school,  not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something?   Well –  do something well! And put your name on it!”

         

          But they crush her.  Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger,  and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her.   A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input,  an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic  insists “the anger is about who owns language”  .  Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism.  Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval,    they are a truly  modern horror.         

    

    As a show it is pure essence of  Icke,  turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson. The director-adapter has overloaded it:  like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions.  But it is gripping, and   Juliet Stevenson is a marvel,  with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and  a terrifying emotional depth.  Here’s integrity,  arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once  she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal.  In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving.  In a final reflective conversation with the priest whose arrival started it all there are glimpses of deep doctorly meditation on life, death, and the value of hoping.  Ironically, in the end the dog-collar and the white coat are both  concerned with faith and hope.  

     

  The updating is perfect for our times too: its one logical snag  will only be noticed by Catholics,  because since the 1970s the ‘Sacrament of the Sick” has not been seen – as it once was  – as “Extreme Unction”for  deathbeds only.  Nor would a modern priest presume that a 14 year old was headed for hell unless anointed.   But that’s a quibble.  You won’t regret the ticket.    

box office  020 7359 4404    to  28 september      www.almeida.co.uk

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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COUNT ORY Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI GETS INTO THE BLITZ SPIRIT WITH OPERA ALEGRIA AT GRIMEBORN
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a flirtatious farce in which a naughty young Count drives everyone demented with his relentless erotic enthusiasms: and it glitters, musically and dramatically, with madcap Rossinian flair all the way through. For Grimeborn, Opera Alegria have moved the setting from the Crusades to the Second World War, with Count Ory as a feckless young aristocrat who hasn’t joined up, instead running rings around his exasperated tutor, the redoubtable air-raid warden and the hapless Home Guard as he searches for a way to seduce the delectable Adele. Lindsay Bramley’s brilliant translation-adaptation romps home joyfully with the goods: the wartime update lands the tone somewhere between a (very) cheeky Gilbert & Sullivan and a slightly sweary Carry On film, especially once the lads get the nun costumes out (oh, yes, they do). But while the tone is refreshingly light and firmly tongue in cheek, the music making is unrepentantly good stuff. We get an hypnotically elegant piano accompaniment arranged and played by Bramley, and a team of superb singers who attack both dramatic and comic moments with lyrical gusto. This strong ensemble boasts several eyecatching talents: Alistair Sutherland’s richly sonorous bass never fails to impress as Hopkins the tutor, a poised and sassy Caroline Carragher excels as a gorgeously bossy Venetia Trumpington-Hewitt, and Naomi Kilby’s luminous soprano (which has developed exciting depth and strength in recent years) is both engaging and affecting as the innocent heroine Adele. The combined comic skill of Ian Massa-Harris, Christopher Killerby and James Schouten make the Home Guard a well-rehearsed delight, while smaller roles are capably presented by Fae Evelyn as a pleasing Alice and Alicia Gurney as Nathaniel, a plucky little farmer who’s caught Adele’s eye.
Jokes abound in the text, in the score and on the stage: this production fizzes with taut energy all the way to its unusual bedroom climax, which here culminates in a rather joyous (and mercifully unsquirmy) threesome, rather than the usual red-faced mistaken gender reveal. Artistic director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith keeps his fine cast on their toes with slick choreography and continuously well-observed dramatic detail, exploring the piece with care; from the priapic possibilities of carrots to the real tension of an air raid during the storm scene (complete with siren), Newhouse-Smith is unfailingly on the case. Vegetables crop up regularly in Christopher Killerby’s design, which is cleverly simple, using wartime posters to set the scene, while Churchill’s announcement of war opens the piece with admirable tension, the radio extract movingly played over a steadily darkening stage.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 17 August)

Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre

Rating: Four

4 Meece Rating

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