Review: Novello and Son, The Riverfront Studio, Newport

Andy Howells discovers Clara Novello Davies, Mam of Ivor Novello in Arnold Evans’ Novello and Son starring Rosamund Shelley with music accompaniment from Gavin Roberts at Newport’s Riverfront Theatre.

“If you applaud me every time I’m wonderful, we will be here all night!” says Rosamund Shelley’s Madame Clara Novello Davies as she closes her opening recital in the presentation, Novello and Son which played the Riverfront Studio on Friday evening. Indeed, each successive performance is as magic as the first, but there is an energy to Clara Novello Davies character that makes you want to applaud her.

A 19th century doyenne of choral singing in Wales, Clara was a world-renowned choir mistress and singing coach who frequently entertained the rich and famous. The masses loved her too and would travel far and wide to see her, a great example in 1893 was when she and her choir returned To Cardiff Railway Station victorious from the Chicago World Fair’s International Festival of Choral Singing to a reception of ten thousand people. Applauded as an inspiration, particularly to many women at the time, Clara Novello Davies it would seem is now all-but forgotten.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the name Novello is now drawn towards that of her son, the actor, dramatist, singer and composer, Ivor Novello who in the years following the outbreak of The Great War captivated music aficionados with his compositions Keep the Home Fires Burning and We’ll Gather Lilacs.

Arnold Evans’ Novello and Son redresses the balance somewhat and once again gives Clara centre stage (with a little help from her son). A monologue musical performed by Rosamund Shelley with accompaniment provided by Gavin Roberts, the setting of Novello and Son is what one would imagine to be a glorious stage in a fabled venue, but more likely taking place in the London flat where Clara spent her final years. Here, Clara addresses the audience through a final musical, biographical performance to a soundtrack of her sons’ best-known compositions.

A matriarchal figure, proudly Welsh and wildly independent, Clara’s untiring commitment to succeed in everything speaks volumes from the opening moments of Novello and Son.

Rosamund Shelley clearly has a lot of fun playing the charismatic and sometimes eccentric Clara, weaving the narrative of her humble Cardiff origins, a strict chapel upbringing and an untiring commitment to succeed as a singer around Gavin Roberts’ musical accompaniment of Ivor Novello compositions. It’s not all glorious though, there is the loss of a child in infancy, the breakdown of her relationship with her husband, David and the shameful attempts to manipulate Ivor’s career.

Miss Shelley occasional diversifies into other accents to illustrate characters in the narrative, but its impossible not to feel the ego and personality of Clara, a very real person, take a firm grip of the unfolding storyline which makes Novello and Son totally captivating.

Although its never formally announced that Gavin Roberts is portraying Ivor Novello, he has the task of projecting the man’s great music into the narrative via the piano. The music becomes Ivor’s voice throughout the production, creating a magical pairing with Clara’s narrative as her son’s popularity on both the silver screen and in music publishing begins to eclipse her career in the years following the Great War.

Clara never seems to grasp how brilliant her son is, believing all the music he writes is for her, but how it could be so much better. Basking in her son’s success, she continues to perform and tour frequently at the financial expense of Ivor himself. However, Clara’s romanticised ideals are rapidly outdating and becoming as ludicrous as they are expensive, an extreme example believing that she could have created Peace in Our Time had she performed for Herr Hitler.

As Clara fades from the limelight, the audience are left with the image of a very real, strong-willed woman of her time whose love of music was handed down to her son and helped create the Ivor Novello we know today.

Novello and Son is an essential doorway into discovering more about one of the most forgotten, yet significant characters in Welsh popular culture. Wonderfully absorbing, you will come away feeling a little closer to the real Ivor Novello and his Mam!

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