Book and lyrics by Peter Nichols: Music by Monty Norman
Barbican Theatre, London 25 September, 1982 (in repertory)
Adelphi Theatre, London 14 November, 1983 (97 perfs)
Poppy, a pantomime parody which explores British imperialism and the nineteenth-century opium wars, was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982. It won the S.W.E.T. award for Musical of the Year and was later re-mounted at the Adelphi. In 1988 the show was revived in a new version at the Half Moon Theatre and that is the text available here.
Poppy is a celebration of Victorian values and exposes the hypocrisy, racism, drug dealing, money worship and sexual repression of the time through its favourite entertainment form. Dick Whittington, his man Jack, Sally the Principal Girl, the Dame, two pantomime horses, a flying ballet, a transformation scene and even the traditional song-sheet are all brought on to tell the serious and finally devastating story of the single most profitable crop of the British East India Company.
Monty Norman's exuberant score, for an orchestra of six, is vibrant, tuneful and ironically arousing.
It is 1840 but in the never-never land where gods meet, the Emperor of China warns the young barbarian Queen Victoria to learn to kow-tow. She sets the scene in an English village, ancestral home of the squire Dick Whittington and his widowed mother Lady Dodo.
Dick is leaving with his manservant Jack Idle and the other men of the village to seek their fortunes in London or the new towns of the industrial revolution. Jack would rather stay with his girlfriend, Sally. His horse, Randy and her mare Cherry also fancy each other and have to be scolded for their farmyard ways. Dodo pines for the good old days but Dick says the age of gold is yet to come.
Sally, left with her mare, sings her confusion. She likes Jack but pines for Sir Richard, who is also her guardian. Secretly she and Dodo take off on their own for London.
In the City, Dick meets Obadiah Upward, a rising merchant, who explains how they can make their fortune in China from the sale of poppies. Dodo and Sally arrive and they agree to go. They sail to India and in the poppy fields Dodo tells Upward why she loves him. Dick and Jack reflect on British India, the East India Company and the Battle of Plassey in a Kipling ballad. En route for China, aboard one of Upward's opium clippers, Dick persuades Jack and Sally to sample their wares and they enjoy a pipe-dream of paradise.
The Emperor of China tells Victoria to grow no more poppy but she replies that the Bounty of the Earth is to be shared by every nation. She leaves him alone to lament his son's addiction to the drug. He sends Commissioner Lin to Canton to stamp out the trade. Here Lin meets Viceroy Teng and his daughter Yoyo who describes the Europeans as all looking the same.
Upward is not intimidated by Lin's threats and send Dick up the coast to seek fresh markets. Victoria joins his crew as an interpreter and Christian missionary and is questioned on her religious scruples. She says there us a blessed trinity that justifies trade. Before they leave Dodo guesses that Sally loves Dick and tells her he's not only her guardian but her half-brother.
The Chinese besiege the European compound and the animals killed to be eaten. Jack sings Randy a last lullaby before shooting him. In the war that follows, the Chinese are beaten and surrender Hong Kong. Dodo and Upward tell us how the British and French soldiers sacked the Imperial Summer Palace in Peking.
Most of the British live happily ever after and the Chinese learn to kow-tow.
- The Blessed Trinity
- The Bounty of the Earth
- China Clipper
- China Sequence
- The Dragon Dance
- The Emperor's Greeting
- The Emperor's Lament
- The Good Old Days
- If You Want To Make A Killing
- In These Chambers
- John Companee
- Nostalgie de la Boue
- Sir Richard's Song
- They All Look the Same To Us
- Whoa, Boy
- Why Must I?
M6 F4. Extras
Emperor of China.
Jack Idle: a manservant.
Randy: his horse.
Sally Forth: a schoolmistress.
Cherry: her mare.
Lady Dodo: dowager Lady Whittington.
Dick Whittington: the squire.
Obadiah Upward: a London merchant.
Lin Tse-tsii: Commissioner to Canton.
Chorus of Villagers, Clerks, Indians, Bearers, Servants, Animals, Mandarins, Guards
Various simple settings
Violin, Woodwind, Trumpet, Trombone/Tuba, Percussion, Keyboard