Islington the Opera revives local legend Joseph Grimaldi

Islington the Opera

Islington the Opera - Credit: Archant

We’ve all seen Islington change over the years, but none quite as much as poor Joseph Grimaldi. When the renowned 19th century entertainer is resurrected in his eponymous park, the land he once knew as fields greets him as a concrete collection of flats, shops and burger joints.

That at least is the premise of Islington: The Opera – a new production by the Young Actors Theatre starts at the Islington Assembly Hall tonight. Drawing on the area’s rich history and culture, the opera sees a group of young actors accidentally resurrect Grimaldi during a picnic. Both confused and delighted to be back in Islington, the famous clown trawls the Caledonian Road in search of stories that can form the basis of his comeback act.

“I was looking for something that would give the story some unity,” explains Peter Cann, who wrote the show’s libretto. “We had already collected lots of stories from people around Islington and wanted something to bring it together.

“While I was looking for inspiration, I visited the site of Joseph Grimaldi’s grave and noticed these red hot pokers growing out of it. I just thought that was quite funny given the context and it gave me the idea.”

Featuring actors all aged between six and 22, the show was put together through a series of local workshops and interviews with members of the Islington community. This gave Cann and Simon Fraser, who wrote the music, the basis for the opera’s sketches of local life, which also address topics like unemployment and housing.

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The inspiration however, can also come from the audience. At the beginning of the show, theatre-goers are encouraged to record their own stories about North London on tape. Later on in the night, the actors wear headphones so they can hear these interviews, relaying the tales live line-by-line to the audience.

“They’re really exciting,” Cann says of the young troupe. “There’s so much ability and if you throw something at them, they’re always happy to give it a go.

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“A lot of the ideas for songs came out of the workshops they did, and there’s also some great acrobatic dancing – real physical performance.”

Despite living in Birmingham, Cann is no stranger to the area and alongside Fraser, who lives in Hornsey, found Islington to be a perfect creative muse. Struck by the vibrant contrast of its sweeping Georgian terraces and the poorer areas around the Caledonian road, they incorporated elements of the area’s multiculturalism into the story along with landmarks like the Revolutionary Bookshop and Sadler’s Wells.

Whether it can live up to the entertainment value of Grimaldi himself remains to be seen, but with so much local colour, Islington the Opera promises to be a treat for residents and opera fans alike.

Islington the Opera runs from February 20-22 at the Young Actors Theatre, with a special gala performance at Islington Assembly Hall this Wednesday. Tickets are £12 (£8 conccessions).

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