Thursday, December 8

Orpheus In The Record Shop – Leeds Playhouse

One of the rare bright spots during the pandemic was getting masked up between outbreaks up to see Orpheus In The Record Shop, and this unique collaboration between rapper Testament and Opera North is back as we return to whatever the new normal is.

Fusing mysticism, rap, beatboxing and some of the country’s best classically trained musicians, Testament has boldly reworked the Orpheus myth of a musician descending into the underworld to reclaim his lost love.

It’s a broad mix of influences that shouldn’t really work, but it does partly due to Testament’s confidence is his ability to beatbox and rap his way through this classic tale, and the fact that the members of Opera North’s Chorus and Orchestra have totally bought into his vision as they drift onto the stark Quarry stage throughout the show.

The show opens with Leeds lad Orpheus in his record store specialising in vinyl that’s facing imminent closure as he battles his demons. Testament shows off the beatboxing skills that won him a world title, including vocally recreating that glorious moment when the needle hits the groove.

Along the way a motley crew of people wander in and out of his store, including a mysterious old woman who leaves him what appears to be a pretty useless gift, but one that will change his life if he wants it to.

Testament may be retelling a redemptive journey, but like High Fidelity this is also a love letter to the joys of vinyl, and the record store as a community. He’s evangelising for the power of music to conjure up time and place as he notes his ex-girlfriend Justine left ‘finger marks’ on him as well as some of his records.

Photo: Anthony Robling

During lockdown the personable Testament put in an assured performance but working with the Playhouse’s Deputy Artistic Director Amy Leach he has dug down into levels he probably didn’t know he had. His often very funny modern retelling of this myth is allowed to breathe more as his timing has improved working with the always inventive Leach.

At the heart of this story fusing contemporary sounds with mysticism is Orpheus trying to share his belief that ‘music is everywhere’ and love conquers all. Along the way he has to deal with his abusive father, a delusional superstar DJ and an officious Ghanaian security guard  

There is something elemental and deeply human when a harpist picks out the melody as Testament raps, and the pure voice of Opera North’s Helen Evora as Justine echoes round this vast space taking us to another dimension. They are joined by French horn, bassoon, strings and a percussionist slowly building aural layers towards a crescendo as Testament tries to process the weird things happening to him, and that unlike Orpheus he can’t look back despite every fibre of his body telling him he should.

The playing by the Opera North musicians is of the highest order, but despite having the sheet music in front of them they are often having to improvise round the score following Testament’s musings.  It’s a heady collision of styles but the looks of joy on the face of the players suggest it is a break from their day job that they are really enjoying.

This is a hugely ambitious production, which is exactly what a major regional theatre should be staging, but thanks to Testament’s utter commitment to his vision backed by high quality musicianship it is a difficult journey that remains full of the power of music and hope even in these troubled times.

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 14th October 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★