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Review: Thousand Furs at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Created by Re:Sound Music Theatre in collaboration with Aldeburgh Music, Thousand Furs is the first in a cycle of short operas based on early European folk tales.

After well-reviewed shows in London and Snape Maltings, on Tuesday 11 August the Manchester audience crammed in the bare brick space of the International Antony Burgess Foundation for a fantastic sell-out performance.

Based on earlier and darker versions of Cinderella, Thousand Furs tells the story of Princess Maria (Kate Smith), whose dying mother made her father the king promise that he would remarry a woman with her beauty and whose finger fitted her wedding ring.

As Maria grows, the King (Oliver Hunt) decides that she is his new destined wife and forces her to agree to their marriage. Asking her father for three wedding gowns, one as silver as the moon, one as golden as the sun, and one as sparkling as the stars, she is able to buy time to create a ragged fur cloak as a disguise and flee to the palace of a neighbouring kingdom. There, under the new name Thousand Furs, she takes a job as a lowly kitchen drudge. While mocked by the palace’s inhabitants during the day for her appearance, at night she infiltrates the three great balls held by the Prince (Roderick Morris) who finds himself both falling in love with the mysterious and beautiful lady and attracted to the strange yet wise servant, not realising they are one and the same.

Each of six cast members has a phenomenal task, not just playing and singing multiple roles involving challenging and frequently acapella music, but playing the accompanying instruments as well. However, the opera is cleverly designed to incorporate the instruments into the characters themselves: naïve Maria’s excitedly strummed ukulele, the grouchy palace cook’s unwieldly cello, and the maddened and villainous king’s low trombone all help to define their personality and place in the story.

Michael Betteridge’s music and Katherine Armitage’s libretto are both gorgeous and perfectly suited to each other, keeping the 45 minute show’s pace rocketing along. Despite the small venue, the simplicity of the set and clever lighting manage to conjure up the grand palace settings in the audience’s imagination perfectly.

In the post-show Q and A, Betteridge spoke about how the opera was in many ways written explicitly for the current cast, which might make producing it elsewhere difficult. If so, I hope the company are able to do at least a few more performances as this is a show that deserves to be seen and heard much more widely.