I’ll Sing once More: Connie Fisher heads for the hills

The BBC recently broadcast a documentary about Connie Fisher, called I’ll Sing Once More – there is still some time left to watch it on iPlayer.  It is billed as the story of Connie Fisher’s ‘attempt to cure the loss of her singing voice with the help of voice builder Gary Catona, the man credited with saving Whitney Houston’s voice’.  Interesting and touching though it is as an exploration of the emotional and physical journey she has been on, it is the story that doesn’t get told that is really intriguing.

Here is the ‘girl’ who won the first Andrew Lloyd Webber TV casting show ‘How Do you solve a problem like Maria?’ amidst public hysteria, and helped to popularise a format which seemed to deliver publicity and profit beyond Lloyd Webber’s wildest dreams.  Well, he must have had some reason for repeating the exercise another four times.  Perhaps we are naive, but whilst Lloyd Webber can hardly be held responsible for ruining her voice, he is strangely absent from this story.  With admirable courage, Fisher puts herself through the emotional wringer once more to see if she can rebuild her voice, as well as revisiting the surgeon who may still hold out hope for her.  She is also searingly honest about her obsessive personality and the damage she did to herself by using steroids to keep going instead of allowing her voice to rest.  But what does all this say about the industry? Comparisons have often been made between Fisher and Julie Andrews, but the tragic figure this brings to our mind is Judy Garland, surrounded by people ‘helping’ her to keep going with the prescription drugs upon which she became dependent.

The most telling ‘confession’ comes from Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the organisation which owns the rights to ‘The Sound of Music’, someone purporting to be one of the ‘good guys’.  Commenting on Connie’s schedule, which included eight shows a week on top of publicity appearances, he pointed out that this was an exceptional case.  She had been chosen by the public, and she felt an obligation to turn up for every performance. “I wonder” he muses, “in retrospect whether that wasn’t part of the problem, and whether if she had been given some time off, or been given two performances a week off, as other people are in the theatre, whether the problems that she ended up having with her voice would have happened, or would have happened so seriously.”  But of course, we know that there was a back-up plan in place.  As we have previously posted, experienced West End performer Emma Williams was lined up as an ‘alternate’ Maria, but mysteriously disappeared from the picture just as Connie Fisher’s unanticipated popularity became apparent.  But it gets better: Chapin goes on to say that “I will confess that I wanted the best for Connie more than I wanted the best for the Sound of Music…and because I had grown to like her and care for her I wanted the best for her whatever that was.”  And that says it all.  Goodness knows what help there would have been for a less ‘likeable’ performer.

Despite wanting to downplay Connie Fisher’s musical theatre training at the time of her victory, by referring to her as a telesales worker, the fact remains that while she was trained, she was not experienced.  In the introduction she says herself that she “jumped the queue.”  It is rare for recent graduates to jump into starring West End roles for a reason – they are unlikely to have the stamina and technique to manage the schedule.  Not only was she inexperienced but she was young.  Who was helping her to protect an asset that should have lasted her a lifetime?  Exploitation doesn’t really cover it, and with a televised audition process, it could be argued, that there is already a bias towards the most extreme personalities, those who are most willing to humiliate themselves and defer to the process, and least likely to take care of themselves by taking a step back when they need to. Reality is the one thing that tends to be noticeably absent from reality TV.

And in Connie’s documentary, there is a striking echo of the rigours of casting by TV, when she attempts to have some lessons with voice builder Gary Catona.  Courageous, foolish, or just so used to living her life in the spotlight that she doesn’t notice the cameras?   We are not sure – perhaps it’s all three, but she particularly struggles with his method, which requires his pupils to ‘sound ugly’ before they can sound beautiful.  She is in tears much of the time, whether with the joy of getting her voice back or the horror of having to make horrendous sounds.   Yet surely it is essential to all kinds of performing to be able to stop watching yourself and let rip.  This is one of the cruelest aspects of the casting shows themselves.  After all, each contestant is eliminated after giving their ‘worst’ public performance.  At least normal auditions allow the losing candidates some dignity in their failure.

Which brings us back to Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Perhaps the saddest moment of all comes near the end of the programme, in which Fisher is offered the possibility of another surgical procedure on her throat.  Understandably cautious, she then reveals that “Half the battle with my operations was that I spent all the money I earned playing Maria on being Maria, and I can’t really afford another operation”.  It is heart-breaking to hear, and somehow symbolic of her whole predicament.  The casting process identifies her forever as a single character in a show, because that is what suits the producers.  Her long-term career doesn’t matter to these people, and in this brief insight we see a desperation to hold on to her association with the role which ultimately seems to have been self-destructive. Would multi-millionaire Lloyd Webber step in to pay for surgery for his protegé?  We’ll never know.

One thing we do know is that Lloyd Webber is campaigning to have the UK laws around children working in the theatre relaxed to allow for longer hours and shorter breaks.  For him, the regulations which are there to protect young performers are just ‘red tape’ holding him back.  His new show ‘School of Rock’ will now open on Broadway because (surprise, surprise), the rules are more relaxed over there.  Children are children, however talented they may be, and they have needs outside their performing careers.  If the most prominent names in show business can’t see that, what hope is there for adults?

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Backwood bachelors: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Saturday 18th July 2015, matinée

Regents Park Open Air Theatre seems uniquely suited to staging a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – whilst not exactly a match for the grandeur of the American West, the outdoor setting certainly helps, and the venue has made a name for itself with musical adaptations, most notably for us ‘Hello Dolly’ and Crazy for You.  Having booked our tickets, news that the cast was going to be lead by Laura Pitt-Pulford was just the cherry on top.

We can’t accuse the writers of being coy about the storyline – the show sets out its stall early on when backwoodsman Adam Pontipee strolls through the audience and onto the stage singing ‘Bless your beautiful hide’.  Yes, it’s a song about a woman, the woman he hopes to marry one day, wherever she may be, and it’s quite a long list of attributes he is looking for, mostly related to personal grooming and cooking ability.  He’s been waiting too long, he feels, and, popping into town to do some trading he decides to pick himself up a wife.  Miraculously, he finds Milly Bradon, who ticks all the boxes and is fed up of her thankless job as cook and waitress. She agrees to bypass the months of ‘courtin” and marry him on the spot.  Little does she know he has six brothers at home, but unfazed, she decides that the only way she is going to get some peace with her new husband is to find wives for them all.  It’s a bit like Jane Austen in reverse.

The musical is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, ‘The Sobbin Women’, a pun on the famous ‘Sabine women’ who were abducted by the ancient Romans.  We were expecting to have to ignore the sexual politics and just sit back and enjoy the songs (original music by Gene de Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, with later additions by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn), but we found ourselves enjoying the lighthearted satire as well.  The tone is managed perfectly by putting Milly firmly in the driving seat.  She might have married for love (and literally at first sight) but there is not much sentimentality about her. She realises she will need to take control and she is undaunted by the task.  Adam and his younger brothers on the other hand are big kids, more to be pitied than feared, and they are on a steep learning curve, never more than when Milly teaches them to dance in their long johns like a group of overgrown toddlers.

There isn’t too much time to reflect on the deeper meaning of the action, though, with a rip-roaring pace and impeccable comic timing, along with dance sequences which remind us what made the film so famous in the first place. It’s no mean task recreating those dance sequences live, and choreographer Alistair David and his spirited cast don’t hold back.

As Milly, Laura Pitt-Pulford is the lynch-pin of the show.  She is has a lot to do, and we can’t think of an actress and singer better suited to the task – she’s lovely enough to marry at first sight, feisty enough to become an instant matriarch in a lonely cabin in the mountains, and never loses her charm and lightness of touch as she steers these unreconstructed men through the rigours of ‘modern’ civilisation (or as their brother would have it, turns them into cissies).  We never fail to marvel at her singing voice, and the emotional range she brings to every song.  Here she has free rein to show off her abilities.

Alex Gaumond has the unenviable task of winning over the audience in spite of his caveman attitudes to gender roles – when his younger brothers urge to him behave he proclaims ‘I don’t have to – I already got me a wife!’ Of course, there is a decent man inside waiting to be discovered, and Gaumond does a great job of revealing the lovable rogue beneath the bluster, with fine vocals into the bargain.  The production has a massive cast, all of whom have their moments, so it would be a shame to miss anyone out.  So here we have the suddenly eligible and strangely balletic bachelors: Leon Cooke, Bob Harms, James Leece, Sam O’Rourke, Adam Rhys-Charles, Ed White; and their plucky wives: Rosanna Bates, Charlene Ford, Bethany Huckle, Frankie Jenna, Natasha Mould and Karli Vale.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has been through a few incarnations since the film version in 1954, and we have to say it scrubs up well. Director Rachel Kavanaugh and musical Director and superviser Stephen Ridley and Gareth Valentine have given it a no-nonsense production which perfectly showcases the talents of the whole cast.  Ironically though, although many new songs have been added over the years, it’s ‘Bless your Beautiful hide’ we came out humming.  And if you would like to hum along too, we were very pleased to see that there is a new CD available featuring the cast.

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Hello? The Book of Mormon tops the league table for overpriced tickets….again

According to The Stage, there’s a new league table in town, and theatres seem to be clammering to be at the top of it.

Yes, this is The Stage’s new annual ticketing survey, which declares ‘The Book of Mormon’ winner of the greediest purveyors of greed award (as we like to call it).  Strangely, the ticket price is set at a very precise £202.25.  As though someone is trying to win a sealed bid.  But why would anybody want to advertise their intention to rip customers off so shamelessly?  Maybe price-referencing has something to do with it.   This is the practice of deliberately over-pricing certain products in a range in order to make the others look cheaper.  A quick look at the seating plan for the stalls starts to look like a supermarket shelf.  Firstly, only a tiny number of seats are priced over £200.  But now, there is a whole range of price points within the ‘premium range’ (Taste the difference anyone?), leaving a ‘top price’ ticket of £77.25 which covers most of the auditorium on the more popular nights.  The position of the seats cannot justify the price differential, but once you’ve got a figure of £200 in your head, everything else suddenly seems cheap.  It’s not a rational process.  Nobody in their right mind would look at the seating plan, see a £150 ticket next to a £200 one, and think, I’ll get the expensive one because clearly I’m going to get another 33% of enjoyment by sitting one foot nearer the centre of the row.  In fact, some of the cheaper seats are nearer the stage. ‘Demand’ is the constantly repeated mantra, but actually this is more about price sensitivity.  Just as Starbucks have invented a great way to take money from customers who don’t care about the price-tag with the invention of overpriced marshmallow toppings on drinks, theatres are getting in on the act.  Three years ago we made this point and predicted that once producers have identified a group of price-insensitive customers, the sky’s the limit, and it seems we have been proved right so far, with every sign that the trend will continue.

The next task is to convince audiences that it is virtually impossible to get tickets most of the time.  So for example, we have Chief executive of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers Jonathan Brown claiming that ‘the premium price category allows late access to good seats for high-selling shows [and] in many ways follows a similar pricing model to plane and train travel’.  So what he seems to be saying is theatres are thoughtfully pricing poor people out of the market so that there are always a few tickets left for rich people.  But having monitored last-minute availability for a show like The Book of Mormon over a few days, we have yet to see a sold-out show.  Yet on the official website is an invitation to join a special exclusive ‘priority list’ to be contacted about returns.  ‘Can’t wait to see the Book of Mormon? Join our priority SMS returns queue’ it proclaims.  Or, we suggest, wait one or two days and book an available ticket on the website.  Again, it is totally irrational to wait for a return when you could just book ahead.  But if you can induce some kind of group panic about scarcity, and then offer a form of ‘rescue’, the product will be valued all the higher.  It’s the kind of trick hotel booking sites use with their ‘helpful’ warnings that the room you are looking at is about to be sold out.  That constant state of ‘nearly’ missing out is the holy grail of the marketing people – and have you noticed how miraculously there always seems to be something available?

Proponents of dynamic pricing are keen to point out that tickets can get cheaper too, but again, the full story is not being told.  Just as the ‘premium price’ and top price tickets creep over ever larger areas of the auditorium (we actually saw a premium price restricted view ticket for one show), the seats at the cheapest prices really are the worst seats in the house – there is very little chance of grabbing a slight less worse seat by booking early, as we used to recommend.  And the differential between the bottom and next price up is, again, completely out of kilter with reality.  This is the ‘basics’ range, it’s not there to give anyone a bargain, it’s a way of clearly identifying the least desirable product.  Surely the prize for disingenuity, though, must go to another glorious quote from Jonathan Brown, who comments that the 33% price hikes at the top end ‘go some way to making these lower prices commercially viable’.  And the lower prices he is referring to?  A drop from an average of £20.36 to £20.13 – that’s just over 1%.  All we’re saying is, don’t let him anywhere near your financial affairs as he clearly struggles to work out just where all that extra money is going.  No wonder ‘The Stage’ also seems to have stopped commenting too loudly on the disparity between profits and audience figures.  Perhaps it is just too embarrassing to have to admit that the gap is widening, with a report from February 2015 quoting revenues increasing by 6% while audience figures remain static, which belies claims of dynamic pricing responding to ‘demand’.  Demand is not growing, yet prices are rising.  Isn’t that what economists call a ‘broken market’?

We are also getting quite tired of hearing about the analogies between theatres and airlines, because one important point is always ignored by most commentators. Steve Rich of Theatremonkey has already eloquently explained the point, but it bears repeating.  Let’s take Easyjet as an example.  You can actually go to their website and have it explained to you in words of one syllable: if you want a cheap seat, book early.  That’s all you have to do. And they will even give you a voucher if the price goes down instead of up.  They tap into the primal human urge to get a bargain without denting their profits by giving customers a genuinely fair chance and giving them fair warning that prices will go up if they leave it too long. Compare that with the West End theatres.  The pricing might be complicated, but the message is clear – theatre is now for the rich, and we should be grateful for any crumbs that fall off the table.  Even Juliet Stevenson baulks at the price of tickets now.  The vast corporations that now control the West End seem to have decided that theatre is a cash cow to be milked.  We don’t expect supermarkets to nurture a love of food, so why should we expect corporations that own theatres to nurture a love of theatre?

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Love and Wall: Amour at the Royal Academy of Music

Saturday 27th June 2015, matinée

It’s a familiar story.  The setting is Paris.  A man steals a loaf of bread and ends up in prison.  He escapes and is eventually vindicated, befriending an assortment of street people including an unfeasibly cheerful prostitute and becoming the figurehead of a popular revolution along the way.  No, it’s not ‘Les Miserables’, although it does have another important thing in common with that musical – a luscious sung-through score.
This is ‘Amour’, based on a short story by the French novelist Marcel Ayme, who is said to have written the story in the style of a fable during the second world war in order to escape censorship.  If there was a deep meaning to the story, we’re not sure how well it has survived the musical treatment.  But this is the Royal Academy of Music end of year student show, and here the music is the star.

This is the story of an ordinary man in post-war Paris, a civil servant who suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls.  As he explores his new powers he grapples with the difficult morality of his position and tries to ‘do good’ by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, becoming a modern day Robin Hood. But it can’t last, and he suffers a strangely martyr-like fate.  Beneath the fairytale veneer lies a dark world where authority figures are morally corrupt, and the poor stay poor, but that doesn’t stop us having plenty of fun with the story.

If you have only heard that Amour was a Broadway show which flopped in 2002, you might be wondering why the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre department would want to use it as an end-of-year show for their students.  You only have to look at the song-list to see why.  With music by Michel Legrand, and English lyrics and book by Jeremy Sams, this musical boasts a vast number of hummable tunes with hilarious lyrics, offering genuine opportunities for everyone to shine.  It is not often that the songs make up for a less-than-tight book, but here there is plenty to delight us.  And we have to say we haven’t come across such consistently good diction in an ensemble cast in a very long time – vital here where so much of the entertainment involves wordplay.

Director Hannah Chissick has created a minimal and seamless staging that keeps the action moving, and although there are no sets as such, there is still plenty of mobile stage furniture to keep us grounded in the period and set the mood, including a rather charming moveable streetlamp.  Musical Director Jordan Li-Smith manages the pacing beautifully, delivering a staggering 42 numbers with actors who are by turns moving the furniture, cycling around the stage and forming a human wall.

As Du Soleil, the unassuming hero, Chris McGuigan immediately caught our eye.  He plays the moral dilemmas his character goes through with conviction, without losing the twinkle in his eye, and he projects the music with charm and a light touch, relentlessly cheerful to the end.  Whether yearning for the ‘Amour’ of the title, or indulging in some wall-penetrating slapstick, he is a pleasure to watch.  He is supported by an excellent cast, including Toby Hine, who has a beautifully clear voice which shines out as the news vendor, as well as a nice comic touch as the world’s most inexperienced lawyer.  Maeve Curry and Karoline Gable indulge in a shameless flirting competition as the co-workers who become rivals for Du Soleil’s love after he becomes famous, having previously found him nothing more than a nerdy irritation.  As the outrageously corrupt Gendarmes, Alfie Parker and Tim Southgate make a great pair with perfectly tuned comic timing and physical comedy (just think of a hundred things to do with a truncheon and you get the idea), and Southgate also has a nice turn as Du Soleil’s tyrannical but ridiculous boss.

The Royal Academy of Music has made a feature out of giving lesser known and quirky musicals a fresh, high quality airing, and this year they’ve done it again.  The ‘Amour’ is most certainly requited!

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Marathan Sham: An Audience with Jimmy Savile at the Park Theatre

Saturday 13th June 2015, matinée

Some have asked if the Park Theatre‘s new production of Jonathan Maitland’s play ‘An Audience with Jimmy Savile’ is too soon.  We say it’s not soon enough.  It’s probably about fifty years too late.  An exploration of how Jimmy Savile groomed the nation, and recruited the establishment as an accessory to his crimes, this play attempts to give him the trial he never had, and goes some way to redressing the injustice of a perpetrator dying before he has had to face judge and jury.  The title is well-chosen – ‘audience’ implies power and influence as well as popularity, and the format incorporates plenty of fawning and self-congratulatory egotism.  At the same time, the public figure is gradually dismantled by the narrative of a single victim and her tireless attempts to be heard and believed about what happened to her as a twelve-year-old child, culminating in a fictional confrontation which finally gives her the upper hand.

This format is surprisingly powerful.  However much you might think you know about Savile, it’s no substitute to being confronted with the man himself (or as near as we can get), and watching a series of establishment figures praise, support and make excuses for him, whether it’s the Police, the BBC, the NHS or even the Catholic church.  It is the casting of Alistair McGowan that is the key to this play’s success.  Many actors who play real people make a distinction between ‘doing an impersonation’ of the person and portraying them in a dramatic setting.  In this case though, an impression is exactly what is needed.  McGowan expertly brings Savile into the room with a mesmerising clarity of performance.  He is not here to ‘get inside’ Savile’s mind – it’s clear from the constant obfuscation of the man’s responses that this is a distant dream.  You could almost say Savile is a ‘personality’ constructed entirely around an inner emptiness, and the play shows how he did it.  But the vital purpose is not for us to understand or ’empathise’ with him, but to see him in a new light and feel the extreme discomfort of witnessing the humour and catchphrases spill out of the world of entertainment into the darker territory of police interviews and the sickening use of religion to justify his actions.  Apart from one notable incident, all this is delivered in the same showbiz style, ‘the power of odd’ as Savile calls it.  We’ll never hear the phrase ‘Jim’ll fix it’ in the same way again, now that we know how many other things and people he ‘fixed’ in order to avoid justice for so long.

No-one can upstage Savile of course, but the supporting cast of four do an excellent job of weaving the stories of the ordinary people around him – Graham Seed is suitably oily as the supine TV host, Leah Whitaker has us rooting for her with her spirited portrayal of a young mother wanting to be believed, while Charlotte Page and Robert Perkins effortlessly fill in a full cast of characters from police officers and journalists to co-conspirators.

This is his second play for the theatre, and Jonathan Maitland is clearly not afraid of a challenge.  A subject so full of recent controversy, highly sensitive events, and a real-life hate-figure as the main character is not an easy sell.  But he has succeeded in his aim of writing a play that will not let us forget what happened.  He creates discomfort without sensationalising events, and quietly allows us to face the horrific implications, as Savile steadily condemns himself with his own words and actions.  At ninety minutes, this is not an in-depth exploration, but it is quite long enough to be in the presence of a monster.

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Mermaid whips up a storm: Shared Experience at the Watford Palace Theatre

Saturday 16th May 2015, evening

We’ve always said we’d go anywhere to see Shared Experience, but Watford? Only joking, we can definitely recommend the Palace Theatre Watford, although it’s a shame that it’s hemmed in by giant carparks on one side and a soulless ringroad on the other.  So much for traffic management!

It’s good to see Shared Experience back in action with a play written by Polly Teale that gives them full rein – a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Mermaid’.  Staying close to the spirit of the original, Teale doesn’t shy away from the darkness in the story, but she also finds new meaning and an uplifting message.  Here we have a modern day narrator, a sixteen year old girl who is dissatisfied with her own life, wanting to be rich and popular.  She brings many modern touches to the story, with the addition of paparazzi and PTSD to the lives of the royal couple, but the essential story is the same.  A young mermaid, eager to see the world above the waves, decides to leave her idyllic life under the sea to strive to become human and gain a soul by being loved by the prince she has only seen from a distance.  She pays a high price, and success seems to slip from her grasp until our young narrator rescues the story in a new and fresh twist.

As soon as we walked in, we felt as if we were being transported to a seaside town, and we could almost smell the salt in the air.  Tom Piper’s design beautifully combines the real and surreal with a raised stage which serves both as dock and as the narrator’s bedroom, until it is gradually dismantled, first by the mermaids, and then by a shipwreck, in which the cast strip the stage of all civilisation, with just a wardrobe left hanging from the ceiling. The staging is full of invention, for example, when the mermaids swim upstream to the city, a river strewn with rubbish is a source of delight as they toss paper and plastic bags into the air as if they are floating.  It is hard to describe the effect in words – Teale and her company use visuals as a form of emotional language that taps directly into an intuitive world.

It takes a company like Shared Experience to put on a production like this, convincing us that we are in a mythical underwater world by sheer force of will. The mermaids emerge from under the raised stage, no fake mermaid tails here, but they suggest creatures that live in water by being in constant motion, generating an energy that is hypnotic, whether it’s mischief, joy or discontent. It’s not all innocent fun though – when they first encounter a shipwreck and drowning men, they are more curious than distressed, and in a brilliant piece of mime, they move the drowned man’s limbs and then let them float down again in the water, lifeless.  Their singing, which is said to cause storms is also beautiful but disturbing, supplemented by a choir of local women from the sides of the stage.

Sarah Twomey as the youngest mermaid gives a completely unaffected performance, with a bountiful supply of innocent wonder.  Her speechless joy at discovering her new legs as her Prince carries her back to the palace is infectious.  She’s no ‘little mermaid’ – she is full of big-hearted emotion and ambition, wanting to have a human soul and understand herself and others fully.  Twomey’s journey from innocence to emptiness is deeply touching. As the narrator Natalie Gavin weaves a very skilful web, whether watching her own creation from the sidelines, getting on with her own life, or entering the story herself. As a portrait of troubled adolescence with all its unmet potential, this is a subtle and engaging performance.  As the young prince, Finn Hanlon creates a sympathetic character – he doesn’t reject the mermaid, but is simply incapable of loving her, traumatised by his experiences in Afghanistan.  He can’t see what is in front of him, and yet never stops searching for an illusive peace of mind, and whilst he brings out the aristocratic and privileged hauteur of the young royal, his slightly pompous philosophical musings are heartfelt. It is impossible to talk about individual members of the cast without acknowledging the work of every single actor (Ritu Arya, Polly Frame, Miranda Letten, Steve North and Amaka Okafor) – all of them work together to reset the stage, create a huge number of characters, and keep the focus of the story moving on, and when only eight people came out to take a bow, it was hard to believe.

Shared Experience have proved yet again how powerful their approach is – they bring out the complexities and psychological nuances in a way that only theatre can (though sadly not all theatre does).  Our challenge is to try to do justice to an intensely emotional and visceral experience on paper.

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Carrie on at the Southwark Playhouse

Saturday 9th May 2015, matinée

It was with ghoulish anticipation that we approached the Southwark Playhouse on Saturday afternoon to see ‘Carrie the Musical’, making a mental note not to sit anywhere near the front row (quite difficult in that space of course).  Based on Stephen King’s first novel, the publicity describes this as an ‘unlikely Cinderella story’, thus immediately earning it the understatement of the year award.  For those who have been living in a cave for the past forty years, Carrie tells the story of a vulnerable seventeen year old, bullied at school, and under the influence of her fanatically religious, hell-fire preaching mother who hasn’t told her the facts of life, and whose answer to most problems is to lock her in a tiny ‘prayer closet’, not realising that her daughter’s interests in the supernatural are taking an unexpected turn.  As Carrie begins to discover her own powers of telekinesis, a well-meaning invitation to the high-school prom turns very nasty indeed.

It’s hard to believe that the musical was first performed in 1988 (and even harder to believe it was first staged by the RSC), and even allowing for some updating in a new version, the story has worn very well, dealing with those timeless themes of teenage angst, coupled with the pressure-cooker environment of high school as senior prom approaches.

Director Gary Lloyd has used the space effectively to create a vaguely threatening atmosphere of run-down municipality, with some clever visual trickery by Jeremy Chernick accompanying Carrie’s growing supernatural powers, and excellent use of light and sound to punctuate the horror.  Ultimately though, it’s a fairly straightforward re-telling of a popcorn movie that has somehow attained an iconic status.

There are certainly shocks and plenty of blood in store, but it lacks the subtle creepiness of more modern horror genres. Michael Gore’s music (yes, really), is very good at portraying the high emotions required, with some particularly intense duets and solos for Carrie and her mother, high energy numbers for the schoolkids, and a poem set to music which symbolises Carrie’s hope that she might re-invent herself before it’s too late.  Powerful though it is, the tunes are not particularly memorable.  They lack complexity, and coupled with lyrics which don’t seem to bring much psychological depth, ultimately the music doesn’t take the story to the next level.  It seems to be skin deep.   And with a plot as insubstantial as this, some musical momentum would have helped.

The performances raised the material to undeserved heights, with spot-on casting, intense focus and energy, and stand-out leads.  Gabriella Williams as the bullying ringleader is deliciously bitchy with the untouchable arrogance of youth.  As Tommy and Sue, the unfortunate lovers whose attempts to put things right precipitate disaster, Greg Miller-Burns and Sarah McNicholas are melodious and sincere, and Jodie Jacobs as Miss Gardner the gym teacher not only perfectly captures the essence of the archetypal PE teacher, tough on the outside, but with tenderness deep down, but adds some powerful vocals to the performance.  Evelyn Hoskins is extraordinary as Carrie – she packs a huge punch with a voice that belies her size, and brings a likeable weirdness to the character. Kim Crisswell is a Diva in all the best senses of the word, leaving an impressive catalogue of musical theatre roles in her wake.  As Carrie’s mother, her presence alone is enough to convey the psychological power she has over her daughter, and her heartrending struggles as she tortures herself for past sins brings the house down at several points during the show.

This is certainly an enjoyable and entertaining show and a high quality if a little unimaginative production, but we’re not sure it is an undiscovered and enduring classic. And for anyone looking for insights into high school massacres, you might be better off with Michael Moore.

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