The Marriage of Kim K, Arcola Theatre, London ★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Marrying classical opera buffo to 21st century pop culture will always be a risky task. The Marriage of Kim K, which opens the Arcola’s 2017 Grimeborn season, takes The Marriage of Figaro and butts it against the world of reality TV star Kim Kardashian, creating a sung-through musical which is rather more clever in concept than it is in execution.

The show’s composer and director, Stephen Hyde, plays a struggling songwriter who, after days of trying to get commissioned for his writing, yearns to relax on the sofa with his favourite Mozart opera.

His wife Amelia (Amelia Gabriel), though, wants to unwind with her favourite reality show, watching Kim Kardashian progress through her short-lived marriage to basketball star Kris Humphries.

The classical elements involve Figaro’s Count and Countess Almaviva, although they do not turn up until some way into the show’s 80-minute running time.

When they do, Emily Burnett’s soprano is impressive and easily the best performance of the show. Starting off in the usual Italian, a canny sign of the show’s accessibility and humour comes when Amelia elects to turn on the “subtitles”, causing the actors to switch to singing in English.

The translations are loose, show co-writer Leoe Mercer choosing to play up parallels between the Almavivas’ and the Kardashians’ ideas of fame, love and sex.

On the other side of the stage, Yasemin Gulumser and James Edge struggle with playing two real-life characters who, despite miles and miles of video tape footage, have very little to say.

Mercer and Hyde’s songs for them are inspired by Mozart melodies (with urban beats and fast-paced raps), but their performances need better sound mixing, and performers who can hit the high notes with a purer sound and pitch.

Literally and figuratively in the middle, Stephen and Amelia’s relationship plays out with a score that deftly inherits stylings from the other couple’s musical extremes.

What the play has to say about their relationship, and couple’s relationships in general, is rather less inspired. At times, it seems as if the battle over the TV remote is both the key disagreement in their relationship and the most interesting one.

As the show progresses, the triple storylines do begin to blur, although the trifurcated stage works against this principle, as well as restricting movement within the play’s earlier scenes. The end-on staging also struggles in the Arcola’s more thrust-like auditorium, but may work better when restaged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next month.

If newcomers to opera are enticed in by the promise of Kim Kardashian, they are likely to be disappointed by the representation of the reality TV star; Ru Paul’s Drag Race recently staged a far better musical interpretation of Kim and her family.

But there is a good chance that the higher quality of the true operatic moments is enough to intrigue those who would normally dismiss opera. And on that point at least, this production wins.