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GREEN MATTHEWS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF MUSIC - The Rose Playhouse, Bankside, London - 8 May 2019

Why does a crumhorn have a curved bottom? Answer: no reason, it just looks nice! This was just one of the many musicological morsels proffered by multi-instrumentalist husband and wife duo, Chris Green and Sophie Matthews. They describe their show A Brief History of Music as “600 years of musical history in 90 minutes” and by gum, they’re not lying.

But first the venue, which deserves a full review by itself. The Rose Playhouse is the oldest theatre on London’s historic Bankside and hosted plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe in its heyday. Unearthed 30 years ago following the demolition of an office block, it is now both an archaeological site and a performance space. It is eerie, cavernous and chilly (blankets are provided), but a more atmospheric setting for this show could not be imagined.

There’s only one place to start, and that’s with Sumer Is Icumen In, the oldest known English song. And as Green points out, there’s only one way to follow it, and that’s with…well, the second oldest (Miri It Is: proof of a venerable lineage for complaining about the weather). There follows a joyous dash through 15th century French dance tunes and compositions by Henry VIII, John Dowland and the folkie’s favourite, A. Nonymous (Boys Of Bedlam and Martin Said To His Man). The interval is wittily timed to coincide chronologically with the dour Interregnum.

When we resume, Cromwell is stiff as a starched collar and musical history springs back to life. The 17th and 18th centuries roll by with Playford tunes, a saucy song from Thomas d’Urfey’s Pills To Purge Melancholy (“one of the clean ones”, apparently) and Charles Dibdin’s rollicking Tom Tough. The burgeoning broadside ballad trade of the 19th century is represented by Billy Don’t You Weep For Me (Nic Jones’s tune and arrangement) and the Edwardian love of music hall finds voice with When Father Papered The Parlour. The show concludes with Ivor Novello’s Keep The Home Fires Burning; the Great War representing the point after which, for GreenMatthews at least, “music ceases to be history and becomes nostalgia” (discuss). Unlike Richard Thompson, they draw the line at Britney Spears.

Chris and Sophie wear their musical talents and erudition lightly, peppering the programme with humour and infectious enthusiasm. They are clearly having a ball, even as they battle valiantly to keep their small army of wind, string and reed instruments in tune despite the venue’s challenging Tudor climate. But what really comes across is the inseparability of musical and social history: the show is both a testament to and celebration of humanity’s enduring relationship with music. As I file out, with the poignant strains of the encore Good bye-ee ringing in my ears and the blood slowly returning to my extremities, I feel like I have been on a remarkable journey.

Clare Button