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The Ring of Stones
Published on Wednesday, 17 August 2011

4 stars

theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall (venue website)
15-20 Aug, 4:15pm-5:50pm
Reviewed by Lee Zhao

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

Eyam (pronounced ee-m) is a small village in Derbyshire, unremarkable save for its local claim to infamy as a "plague village" - a rather tragic and at the same time heroic tale. It is this story of the sacrifice and ultimate success of the villagers in containing the outbreak that forms the source material for The Ring of Stones.

Being a Derbyshire lad myself, I was aware of what happened before coming to see the show. But knowing the story in advance doesn't dull the power of the musical, which sticks very close to the facts and true historical figures. The sense of community is established early on, and every one of the amateur cast made a believable villager of Eyam. I thought it was a mistake, though, that when a character dies, the actor just comes back as another villager; it removes the sense of a dwindling population, such an important part of this story.

The Ring of Stones started life as a modern opera, before being adapted by one of its original creators, Pete Robinson, into a musical for the Fringe. And it shows. The music is sweepingly orchestral and apart from the gravedigger's monologues, virtually the entire musical is sung.

Since the spoken book is pretty much given to one character, there is a lot of weight on shoulders of the narrator, who also happens to be played by Robinson. Happily, he carries it off with aplomb - a towering, charismatic presence that instantly transports you to Eyam, or at least any village in the north of England. Not bad for a man whose day job is a maths teacher!

I would love one day to see this production with a live orchestra, because the recorded soundtrack had its issues: there were a few playback hitches, and it took a while for the right sound balance to be found between singer and backing. Words in the earlier numbers were lost in a wall of sound. The music itself had a few too many unison choral anthems for my liking and not enough contrapuntal duets, which I would have expected from a work that was originally an opera. Also some of the songs seem to lie in an uncomfortably high register for the male singers, who probably would have benefited from singing down a few keys.

But I easily overlooked these minor quibbles, because the most refreshing thing about The Ring of Stones is that it's used its amateur friends-and-family cast to its advantage. It's a true labour of love, in support of the soldiers' charity Help for Heroes. Rather than a feeling of a troupe of musical theatre and drama students - with potentially awful fake Northern accents - and trying to recreate Eyam, I felt I was watching a group of honest, real-life residents, just being themselves in an extraordinary situation.

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