Sunday 8th December, 2013
There are plenty of well-worn stereotypes of theatre ushers – unemployed actors, wannabes who want to be near the stars, and gay men. We’re pleased to say that Ushers, the first show to be put on at the Hope Theatre in Islington, does nothing to dispel these myths, bringing us a frothy and light-hearted tale of theatre folk. Here it is the ushers who take centre stage, pouring out their hopes and dreams, and asking that essential question – how long can you be an usher before you have to stop calling yourself an actor? The plot follows a single very important evening. It’s Lucy’s first day as an usher and she gets more of an induction than she bargained for – it’s the opening night of ‘Oops I did it again’, a musical inspired by the music of Britney Spears, starring Marti Pellow as the main love interest and Michael Ball as Britney’s mother. We hope they’ve copyrighted the idea because we’re frightened it might get put on, and Michael Ball will do it.
James Rottger’s book is cleverly constructed, combining snippets from the ‘staff workbook’ issued to all employees of fictitious faceless theatre chain ‘Theatre Nation’, explaining key concepts of their mission statement and full of frighteningly plausible corporate speak. ‘Theatre Nation – making theatre better’ becomes a chillingly amusing refrain throughout the evening, whether urging bar staff to use more ice to save on mixers and widen the profit margin, or explaining how to get hapless members of the public to accept a flyer on the street. In between, we have vignettes from the troubled lives and loves of the staff, and a witty portrait of the powerplay that goes on behind the scenes of front of house. With a pleasantly light touch and a satisfying resolution, the scene is set for the songs by Yiannis Koutsakos and James Oban, which are well-crafted and generally hit the spot, highlighting some universal truths about people and the industry. They range from high energy ensemble sequences to satire, parody, soul-searching soliloquies, and a touching love duet. Click here for a sample.
The cast of six do a fantastic job of bringing the show to life in a tiny space, and the standards of singing and acting are high. Ralph Bogard as the predatory front of house manager Robin is delightfully slimy, prowling the stage like a demented fagin. A failed opera singer looking for a new source of prestige and power, he pulls the show together as a comedically oppressive force, setting the tone with the song ‘Spend per head’, sell, sell, sell, being the first rule of being an usher in the commercial theatre. Chloë Brooks creates an unlikely heroine in Rosie, the celebrity stalker and blogger, letting rip with her Chicago parody ‘leading men’. Abigail Carter-Simpson brings warmth to the ingenue Lucy, an aspiring actress and newbie usher, with the sweetly-sung ‘Dreams and Ice-Creams’. Liam Ross-Mills and Will Jenning make a lovely couple as Ben and Gary respectively. In many ways their characters are the ‘straight men’ of the piece, bringing a bit of serious drama to the proceedings with a relationship in danger of being torn apart by the vagaries of the business. Both have strong and melodious voices which shine in their final duet ‘Loving you is all I know’. Ross McNeil is Stephen, the object of Lucy’s affection, an actor cursed with good looks which prevent him being taken seriously, as illustrated in his very funny and vocally impressive rendition of the song ‘The parts I could play.’
‘Ushers’ is the inaugural production at the Hope Theatre, and we hope it is the start of an important new trend. Not only will the theatre be a home for new writing, it will also guarantee that everyone who participates receives a wage, including the actors. It seems quite fitting that their first outing should be a satire of corporate theatre and they’ve certainly made a good start – the show we attended was packed out and deservedly so. And we’re looking forward to Koutsakos and Oban’s next project – Mind the Gap: A Tubetastic musical. Sounds good to us!