Jeff Carpenter’s Dido and Aeneas

JOE BATES finds Jeff Carpenter’s Dido and Aeneas so bad it’s not even so-bad-it’s-funny.

ADC ADC theatre Dido and Aeneas Jeff Carpenter joe bates lateshow Musical Purcell

ADC Theatre, 16th – 19th February, 11pm, £4 – 6

Opera by Henry Purcell, adapted by Jeff Carpenter


Jeff Carpenter’s Dido and Aeneas is an insult. Not to the name of opera, but the name of musicals. In his transformation of Purcell’s opera into a musical, Carpenter seems to have decided that quality could go the way of authenticity.

The concept behind the musical is sound. Dido has a good number of catchy tunes that are inaccessible to many simply because they are in an ‘opera’, the most loftily off-putting of genres. Carpenter’s adaption of these tunes was often skilful. He has a keen understanding of show music; his cheesily arpeggiated piano lines were spot on. Whilst his somewhat formulaic settings could have done with much greater variation over the course of the show, it wasn’t the score that undermined this work.

It was everything else. The standards of production and direction were catastrophically dire. The set was a mish-mash of bottom-draw props. A badly-painted cardboard box became a pile of bricks; a five year-old’s cap gun was used for the hunting scene.

Photographs by Milla Basma

This might have been more excusable if the cast hadn’t repeatedly drawn attention to their substandard set by accidentally walking into it. The stagehands getting caught in the backstage curtain was one of the few moments of genuine comedy.

The chorus seemed generally confused about what they were doing. Uncertainty of words and notes dogged their set pieces. Deliberately hammy acting and actions sometimes managed to be funny, but were almost always just awkward.

The list of amateurisms could fill a dozen reviews, but perhaps the most distressing was the savaging of Carpenter’s score. The players were persistently out of tune and the strings could not even manage the simple unison bass line of Dido’s Lament. The sound system was terrible – the microphones captured not only every page turn but also a bizarre knocking noise that persisted throughout the performance.

The synchronisation of the substandard, poorly EQed performance to the singers on stage was equally dire. The chorus played musical catchup all evening. The lead singers, Dido, Aeneas and Belinda, had strong, appealing show voices. Yet their mics were terribly balanced with the horrifically loud orchestra.

As a result, the story was incomprehensible at points. A projected synopsis was provided to try to explain what was going on, yet it was often obscured by the set or by the ever-present dry ice. The confusing plot was extremely poorly paced – the compression of the opera and the poverty of the acting meant that we really didn’t care when Dido slumped dramatically on stage.

It seems that Jeff Carpenter confused ‘musical’ with ‘shit’. Good musicals are well sung and slickly produced despite their cheesiness. The production seemed to be groping towards a ‘so-bad-its-good’ aesthetic, but wasn’t quite good enough to manage even that.