Mathilde makes it to the stage

IF one show encapsulates the original makeshift ethos of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, it has to be Conor Mitchell's new musical Mathilde.

Just a month ago Mathilde looked set to remain a hidden gem after the drama school backing the show's Capital run pulled out at the last moment. Undeterred, Mitchell declared his intention to take the show to Edinburgh on his own. A brave move, but one that, with a little help from his friends, has proved a shrewd one.

First, Chris Grady of The Musical Theatre at George Square gave him a free slot in the new venue. Then Surefire Theatrical offered their services as producers and Sold PR and productions waived their usual fee to promote the venture.

However, the support didn't end there, and next week a cast littered with West End stars will present the first ever concert performance of Mathilde, directed by none other than acclaimed actor and writer Simon Callow.

Based on Guy de Maupassant's La Parure (The Necklace), Mathilde tells the story of a 19th century Parisienne who believes she was born into the wrong social class. When she borrows a diamond necklace to attend a grand ball, she sets in motion a series of tragic events.

Commissioned in 2006 by the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, the piece draws on the work of the French masters with a rich score for string and wind and uses an ensemble cast with a large chorus of nameless voices.

Appearing in the title role will be West End leading lady Frances Ruffelle, who will be joined on stage by National Theatre actress Anna Francolini, Sarah Lark from BBC's I'd Do Anything and West End performers Nigel Richards and Anton Stephens. The remaining cast and chorus have been drawn from open auditions held yesterday in Edinburgh.

Ruffelle, best known for originating the role of Eponine in Les Misrables, for which she won a Tony Award, can't wait to make her Fringe debut.

"I've never been to the Edinburgh Festival so it is really exciting," she says, revealing that she agreed to star in the piece having previously worked with producer Tom Hopkins.

"Mathilde, like many of us, wants to have what she perceives to be the rich life-style. She's really not happy with what she has got. It is only later on in her life that she realises that she really had everything and didn't appreciate it.

"I'd already heard about Conor Mitchell because there is a bit of a buzz about him at the moment – he is so talented. So, when I heard it was written by him I was naturally intrigued to hear it.

"I think it is a clever piece and I like a challenge – it really is quite a challenge. It is written in quite an operatic style – I don't know that he would agree with me on that, but that is how I have interpreted it."

After just five days' rehearsals, the London-based principals and Edinburgh cast will take to the stage for the first of just four performances next Thursday.

Ruffelle, who also represented the UK in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, laughs when asked about working on such a tight time-scale.

"It's very important that people remember that it is a concert version, but the story itself just stands up anyway. It's written in song-speak, so it's quite easy to follow the story and get involved)."

Unlike the production that made Ruffelle famous of course, Mathilde is a fairly low-key affair – there's no 20-strong chorus or revolving stage. However, the 39-year-old insists that she will be just at home in the George Square Theatre as she would be in The Palace Theatre, London.

"Obviously being in a big West End show is a lot of fun and there is a bit of glamour that goes with that. But I've done a lot of smaller productions as well.

"To be honest, I do them for love not money, I wouldn't do a piece unless I liked it. And you know, in many ways it is just as much fun, especially when you are doing something new like this.

"There is something about being there at the beginning working with the composer to create something that makes it special."

For Edinburgh audiences, too, the concert version of Mathilde is an opportunity to see a future West End hit take shape before their very eyes.

&#149 Mathilde, The Musical Theatre, George Square, next Thursday-Sunday 1.15pm, 8.50-9.50, 0131-662 8740