|Basis||The First Opium War|
|Productions||1982 Royal Shakespeare Company
1983 West End
1988 West End Revival
1998 West End Revival
2005 West End Revival
|Awards||Olivier Award for Best New Musical|
Poppy is a musical comedy play set during the First Opium War. The play takes the form of a pantomime, complete with Dick Whittington (played as a principal boy), a pantomime dame, and two pantomime horses. The book and lyrics were written by Peter Nichols; the composer was Monty Norman.
The year is 1840. The Emperor of China warns the young Queen Victoria to know her place - "The Emperor's Greeting". The scene is set, panto-style, in a quaint, cardboard English village, "Dunroamin-on-the-Down", ancestral home of Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington and his widowed mother Lady Dodo.
Dick sets off with his manservant Jack Idle and the men of the village to seek their fortune in London or in the new towns of the Industrial Revolution. Jack is sad to leave his girlfriend, Sally. His horse Randy and her mare Cherry also fancy each other and have to be rebuked for their friskiness - "Whoa, Boy". Lady Dodo pines for the good old days, but Dick believes the age of gold is yet to come.
Sally, left with her mare, sings of her confusion. She likes Jack but pines for Sir Richard, who is also her legal guardian. Secretly, she and Dodo take off on their own for London.
In the City, Dick encounters Obadiah Upward, an up-and-coming merchant, who explains how their fortunes can be made in distant China from the sale of poppies. Dodo and Sally arrive and they agree to make the journey.
They sail to India, and, in the poppy fields, Dodo tells Upward why she loves him - "Nostalgie de la Boue". Dick and Jack reflect on British India, the East India Company and the Battle of Plassey in a Kipling-esque ballad - "John Companee"
The Emperor of China tells Victoria to stop the cultivation of poppies, 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 is confused by Europeans - "They All Look the Same To Us".
Obadiah refuses to be intimidated by Lin's threats and sends 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 explains there is a blessed trinity that justifies trade - "Blessed Trinity" (of Civilisation, Commerce and Christianity).
Before they leave, Dodo guesses that Sally loves Dick and tells her he is not only her guardian but also her half-brother.
The Chinese lay siege to the European compound, and the animals have to be slaughtered for food. Jack sings Randy a last lullaby before killing him - "Rock-A-Bye Randy"
In the war that follows, the Chinese are defeated and surrender Hong Kong Island. Dodo and Upward sing of how the British and French soldiers sacked the Imperial Summer Palace in Peking - "Rat-a-Tat-Tat".
Though there are dark and savage undertones to this fairy tale, in the end, most of the British live happily ever after, and it is the Chinese who learn to know their place.
Poppy premiered on 25 September 1982 at the Barbican Centre performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. That year, it won the Laurence Olivier Award for best new musical. On 14 November 1983, the play was moved to the Adelphi Theatre and ran until 18 February 1984. The show was revived in December 1988 at the now-closed Half Moon Theatre (with Louise Gold as Dick Whittington), in 1998 by the Chelsea Players, and again in March 2005 by the Italia Conti Academy at the Landor Theatre.
A 'script-in-hand' performance was given as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 50th Birthday Celebrations on 9 July 2011, directed by Mark Ravenhill, with both Peter Nichols and Monty Norman in the audience.
|Tao-Kuan, Emperor of China||Tony Church|
|Queen Victoria||Jane Carr|
|Jack Idle, a manservant||Stephen Moore|
|Randy, his horse||Christopher Hurst and Andrew Thomas James|
|Sally Forth, a schoolmistress||Julia Hills|
|Cherry, her mare||Noelyn George and Sara Finch|
|Lady Dodo, the dowager Lady Whittington||Geoffrey Hutchings|
|Dick Whittington, the squire||Geraldine Gardner|
|Obadiah Upward, a London merchant||Bernard Lloyd|
|Lin Tse-Tsii, Commissioner to Canton||Roger Allam|
|Teng T'ing Chen, Viceroy of Kwuantung||Brian Poyser|
|Lord Palmerston||David Whitaker|
- Poppy at The Guide to Musical Theatre
- Poppy production notes from the Chelsea Players
- Pantomimic Conventions in the plays of Peter Nichols by Christine Youssef
- Data record of Poppy at the Barbican from the Royal Shakespeare Company Performance Database
- Data record of Poppy at the Adelphi from the Royal Shakespeare Company Performance Database
- Nightingale, Benedict, "A Colonial Spoof on the London Stage", The New York Times, October 24, 1982