Theatre Review: The Emperor & The Nightingale at Theatre by the Lake

From L to R: Martin Sarreal (Wu) and Amy Gardyne (Nightingale). Photo by Keith Pattison

From L to R: Martin Sarreal (Wu) and Amy Gardyne (Nightingale). Photo by Keith Pattison

By Ken Powell

I’ll get straight to the point – Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) latest production is as brilliant as it is beautiful. If you love theatre, you must go see it.

Regular fans of the Cumbrian theatre will find this no surprise but even for TBTL this latest production is something rather special. ‘The Emperor & The Nightingale’ is, for my money, the best Christmas production they’ve done in the last five years at least.

I wonder if this is deliberate on the part of Artistic Director Ian Forrest who is leaving TBTL after 18 years with the company. It certainly felt like this production was his ‘swan song’ – it was majestic, quite honestly.

As regulars know, TBTL don’t do the traditional pantomines much beloved by other theatres but often rather hackneyed. Instead, they put on shows which are family-friendly, magical but definite artistic theatre. This year, just as with many others, the story was set in a foreign land and involved two young people who, through a series of adventures, come to learn about themselves and appreciate the other.

From L to R: Silas Wyatt-Barke, Joel Sams and Amy Gardyne (operating the dragon puppet), Sally Cheng (Xiao) and Martin Sarreal (Wu). Photo by Keith Pattison.

From L to R: Silas Wyatt-Barke, Joel Sams and Amy Gardyne (operating the dragon puppet), Sally Cheng (Xiao) and Martin Sarreal (Wu). Photo by Keith Pattison.

‘The Emperor & The Nightingale’ was just about as flawless as you could hope to experience. The set design was stunning (including the nightingale itself), the actors full of life and, perhaps most importantly, immensely talented musicians. Composer and music director Richard Atkinson has to be praised along with the actors for the incredible music – all of which was live and performed on stage. Those who were not directly involved in a scene all played authentic-sounding Chinese instruments (including my favourite – the Guzheng) and did a superb job.

Searching for criticisms I struggle to find any. It was, perhaps, a shame that only two of the actors had any Chinese heritage (Sally Chang and Martin Sarreal in the lead roles) considering the setting but both were brilliant. Actually all the actors were brilliant.

The only other comment is that unlike previous years, there was no involvement of local youth. In one sense, this makes the production so much more professional, but it is also a shame. That said, ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ earlier in the year saw huge involvement with locals so I think it’s fair enough to have a Christmas production without this time around.

Overall then, a perfect and enchanting introduction for young future-theatre-goers and a magical time for all the family. I really can’t recommend this production enough and with performances going until the 14th January you’ve still got time to go see it.

‘The Emperor & Nighingale’ runs until Saturday 14 January 2017 and tickets are available at www.theatrebythelake.com or at the box office (017687 74411)