Alison Balsom in Gabriel review – trumpets get lost in translation

Barbican Hall, London As actor, singer, compere and musician, Balsom drives this reimagining of Samuel Adamson’s celebration of Purcell, but the venue impedes its drama. When Gabriel was first staged at Shakespeare’s Globe six years ago, reviewers of this heady mix of Henry Purcell’s music and a sequence of short plays set in 1690s London were captivated by it. Some of the essential parts of what is now subtitled “an Entertainment for Trumpet” have made the journey intact across the Thames into this energetic reimagining of the piece in the Barbican Hall, but too much has also been lost in the translation between venues. The unavoidable reason for this is that the Globe and the Barbican are very different stages. So are their atmospheres, performance dynamics and publics. None at all of this is in the Barbican’s favour, because the Globe’s earthy immediacy is impossible to recreate and the performers have an uphill task making the kind of audience connections in the concert hall that come naturally in the theatre’s more disrespectful space. In the Globe, moreover, the cast were in period costume, whereas at the Barbican they are in defiantly casual modern dress. This changes the nature of the enterprise. Dominic Dromgoole’s direction takes time to establish a performance logic. Samuel Adamson’s short plays slip lightly between the brief life of the disabled boy heir to the English throne, the transgressive sexuality of a star court soprano and the backstage entanglements of a staging of The Fairy Queen. But a deeper sense of history is thin, and the turbulence of the times is barely touched on. In the end, this version of Gabriel is largely dependent on the music, which is alertly overseen by Harry Bicket and the English Concert, and in which the singers Elizabeth Watts, Tim Morgan and Gwilym Bowen all excel. But it is Alison Balsom, now artist-in-residence at the Barbican’s Milton Court, who is the essential protagonist of the whole evening, as well as the driving force behind this recreation. She is rarely off the stage. She performs as actor, singer and compere and her playing of the trumpet music of Purcell (and briefly of Handel) is at once unearthly, plangent and stirring. Balsom’s commitment to her art goes a long way to persuading one that this new version of Gabriel works. In the end, though, it is an honourable failure.

When Gabriel was first staged at Shakespeare’s Globe six years ago, reviewers of this heady mix of Henry Purcell’s music and a sequence of short plays set in 1690s London were captivated by it. Some of the essential parts of what is now subtitled “an Entertainment for Trumpet” have made the journey intact across the Thames into this energetic reimagining of the piece in the Barbican Hall, but too much has also been lost in the translation between venues.

The unavoidable reason for this is that the Globe and the Barbican are very different stages. So are their atmospheres, performance dynamics and publics. None at all of this is in the Barbican’s favour, because the Globe’s earthy immediacy is impossible to recreate and the performers have an uphill task making the kind of audience connections in the concert hall that come naturally in the theatre’s more disrespectful space.

In the Globe, moreover, the cast were in period costume, whereas at the Barbican they are in defiantly casual modern dress. This changes the nature of the enterprise. Dominic Dromgoole’s direction takes time to establish a performance logic. Samuel Adamson’s short plays slip lightly between the brief life of the disabled boy heir to the English throne, the transgressive sexuality of a star court soprano and the backstage entanglements of a staging of The Fairy Queen. But a deeper sense of history is thin, and the turbulence of the times is barely touched on.

In the end, this version of Gabriel is largely dependent on the music, which is alertly overseen by Harry Bicket and the English Concert, and in which the singers Elizabeth Watts, Tim Morgan and Gwilym Bowen all excel.

But it is Alison Balsom, now artist-in-residence at the Barbican’s Milton Court, who is the essential protagonist of the whole evening, as well as the driving force behind this recreation. She is rarely off the stage. She performs as actor, singer and compere and her playing of the trumpet music of Purcell (and briefly of Handel) is at once unearthly, plangent and stirring. Balsom’s commitment to her art goes a long way to persuading one that this new version of Gabriel works.

In the end, though, it is an honourable failure.


Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting