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Tantrum of the opera: how Michael Palin’s angry dad inspired new show

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Theatres are about to embark on a new “golden age” thanks to the combination of freshly enthused audiences and a drive for new adventurous work, according to Michael Palin.

Ahead of the opening of a new opera based on a play by Palin, inspired by his grumpy father, the former Monty Python star told the Observer he is happy to be part of a national return to the theatre.

“We have seen just how much live performance has been missed and what a vital role it plays in our lives. I hope that this joy will not be transitory, but will be celebrated not just with great revivals but with bold new work as well,” he said. “This could be a golden age of theatre.”

Palin, 78, said the power of opera has given an unexpected “grandeur” to a dark comic study of middle-class family life he first wrote 25 years ago. A story inspired by bittersweet personal memories, it is now the centre of a full-length modern piece of lyric theatre.

“It’s a different beast, and it works,” he said after visiting rehearsals of The Weekend, a new operatic production with a jazz-influenced score, based on Palin’s 1994 play of the same name.

“The opera form takes the pretension, suspicion, lies and jealousies and allows them to be played out on a grand scale, taking the comedy to a whole new level,” added Palin.

His play was first produced in the West End in 1994, starring Richard Wilson, who played the famously grumpy Victor Meldrew in the BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave.

It tells of Stephen Frebble, who in retirement has retreated from family life, relying for comfort on his copy of the Daily Telegraph and a glass of whisky. The character, Palin said, was “loosely based” on his own father, Edward Palin, a man who was “pretty angry with the world generally”. Frebble’s peace is invaded by visits from his grown-up children and, eventually, by the unwelcome news that he and his wife are hosting a local cocktail party.

It is a tale of suburban dyspepsia that Palin was surprised to learn had inspired a north London opera company. At first he thought the composer, Scott Scroman, was “pulling his leg”. But with a cast that includes a chorus of 25 singers and a libretto by Tamsin Collison, the production by Highbury Opera Theatre is at the Bloomsbury Theatre.

Palin said the “real quality” of the score struck him immediately and he was happy to give his blessing, particularly when he heard the chorus “echoing the banality” of his character’s lines to comic effect. “The presence of the chorus and the intimacy of the music score counterpoints the darker moments when all these emotions suddenly cease to be funny,” said Palin.

“I couldn’t quite believe how much the delicate emotional narrative of the original play has been transformed and elevated by being given the operatic treatment.”

Highbury Opera Theatre company made headlines four years ago when it staged an adaptation of Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s bestselling book about football.

Palin himself took the lead role of Frebble, alongside starry cast members Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dennis, Bill Paterson, Patrick Barlow and Sophie Thompson, in a production of The Weekend broadcast last year on BBC Radio 4.

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