Venue: Pleasance Dome
China Doll: A Neuropera in Four Seasons is a rare breed of opera that successfully handles an absurd plot which would have flummoxed a less skilled company. The show focuses on the life of Nina (Alice Morgan-Richards), a lonely prostitute who pretends to give birth to a china doll in order to convince her lover to stay.
Morgan-Richards is by far the star of the show. She conveys Nina’s vulnerability and desperation perfectly, highlighting her outsider status in a frivolous and superficial village. Alongside Andrew Lee as Vincent, Morgan-Richards offers a sweet and realistic portrayal of young love. Nina isn’t all wide-eyed innocence and frailty though. Morgan-Richards imbues her character with a subtle underlying bitterness, displaying a depth to her performance that her co-stars fail to match, with the possible exception of Phoebe Rose as Ana. However, this is a fault of the script rather than the cast. The way the characters are written leave little room for nuance, although their simplicity is part of China Doll’s charm. The few instances of hammy acting – most notably from Paul Lawless as Otto – are easily forgiven in an opera that seems for aiming for extravagance rather than precision.
Rose is guilty of overacting at the beginning at the show too, but provides two of the most poignant moments of China Doll alongside Morgan-Richards. The songs during which Ana and Nina both cling onto their failing relationships and later reconcile unexpectedly bring a tear to the eye considering the show is filled with plenty of humour. Scenes that stand out include the haughty Ana being reduced to making a rather bizarre sandwich as the gossipy villagers mock her relationship with Alexi (Carlton James). The sequences in which Otto and Luca (Josh Castree) come to terms with their wives’ pregnancies and frantically rush to buy whatever food their fickle spouses are craving also provide some delightfully silly laughs.
Staging-wise, the show has one of the most intriguing openings that I’ve seen at the Fringe so far. Nina sits sewing in the centre of the stage by the light of a single lamp, surrounded by what initially appears to be an uncanny circle of clothed mannequins – until they slowly begin to move. Add the show’s titular china doll looking suitably creepy to the mix and you’ve got one disturbing set up.
There’s one awkward moment when a blossom branch gets caught as one of the actresses attempts to gracefully lift it from its resting place but scene transitions are generally smoothly handled.
Cynics may find the storyline a little silly and the characters can feel a little clichéd at times, but China Doll is a show with plenty of heart and a catchy score that sticks in the mind long after the performance has ended.