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The Bubble
Royal Opera House

Graham Lee

A musical about the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, in which thousands were ruined when confidence collapsed in the vastly over-inflated stock of the South Sea Company in 1720, would seem to have some topical resonance today.

With the prospect of an upcoming war against Iraq affecting stock market fortunes, the collapse of any number of new media companies and the current pessimism about the economy, it could act as a parable for our times, but its success is more likely down to the fact that it offers easy amusement at the expense of the naivety and optimism of another age.

The play offers a panoramic view of eighteenth century London society, from debtors languishing in gaols to aristocrats prospering on the Stock Exchange. Scabb's Coffee House is at the epicentre of this world, the place where commerce and art meet, frequented by investors and playwrights alike. The main protagonists - Polly, an ingénue from the country and Martin, an orphan from Shropshire - are torn between their romantic relationship and the 'rational' demands of their age. Reason is used to justify irrational behaviour, as in the pseudo-scientific theories used to justify the ill-fated financial speculation; and romance between the pair is severely tested by their precarious financial situation in a corrupt and violent society.

The cast of children from Shrewsbury School engage in a series of remarkably professional and well-staged song and dance numbers. The colourful jackets of the stock exchange jobbers make them resemble music hall or vaudeville entertainers in one ensemble sequence, and the format of the piece serves to reinforce the artificiality of the world of 'commercial and creative intrigue' by exploiting familiar musical conventions and sending up the behaviour of the rogue traders. The Book and Lyrics, by Julian Roach and Peter Hankin, are consistently intelligent and witty, but unfortunately the poor diction of some of the singers in the ensemble leaves some lines indecipherable and the music sometimes sounds like it belongs in a mediocre West End musical.

The action is book-ended by a scene in Bedlam Lunatic Asylum (a symbol for the apparently forlorn attempt by Reason to control irrational forces), where an insane inmate sits transfixed by soap bubbles, which in his deranged mind resemble beautiful jewels. Throughout the musical, other characters become entranced by the imagined wealth in the South Sea Company, against their better judgement. In the climax, Martin resolves to become a theatrical impresario and help produce the enchanting work of one John Gay (eventual writer of the Beggar's Opera), as a more financially circumspect tribute to the creative powers of the human imagination.

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