views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Parade
The London Theatre Workshop
2nd September 2015

★★★★☆

Ross Barnes and Lily de-lay-Haye as Leo and Lucille Frank

Photography © Cameron Slater Photography

There are many reasons why it's hard to settle in a new town. Maybe you're too far away from friends and family? Maybe the weather isn't to your tastes? Or maybe, just maybe, you get banged up for a crime you swear you didn't commit, with a jury of locals delivering a unanimous verdict which will lead you straight to the gallows? Yeah, that oughta do it. In Parade, Leo Frank (Ross Barnes) struggles to settle in Georgia with his wife, Lucille Frank (Lily de-la-Haye), shying away from the community and throwing himself into his job as a superintendent. When one of his employees, young Mary Phagan (Kerry Loosemore) is found dead on the factory premises he manages, prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Norton James) only has two suspects: Leo and night watchman Newt Lee (Michael Moulton).

Alfred Uhry's book has a strong undercurrent of race, class and political issues to it. The details of the cases are skipped over - who was where, who did what, who had a motive - these questions just aren't asked. Instead it all seems to boil down to whether Jewish professional Leo is being scapegoated purely because it's too obvious to convict an unskilled black man, or whether perhaps we're the real monsters for refusing to believe his guilt because he's white and well off. Both scenarios are unpleasant (and not implausible) but Uhry leads us to believe that the truth is Leo has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and with a guilty verdict leading to a death penalty, it's an absolutely horrific outcome. Parade is set in America where there's always been a death penalty, it didn't get repealed as it did over here, however as a British audience, it's easy to forget the permanent consequences of an incorrect verdict until they're spelled out to us.

The more interesting aspect to the book however is the relationship between the Franks. We judge them early on - he's tense and unaffectionate; her instinct is to run away and hide when people start gossiping about her husband. He's a lousy mate, she's a fair-weather bit of arm candy. Yet if anything is going to make or break a marriage, it's got to be a jail sentence. As Lucille decides to stand by her man after all, we see a subtle shift in their dynamic start to take place, with the duo developing a real partnership where they trust each other, rely on each other and even finally find that spark we thought wasn't even there in the first place to be extinguished. Watching Lucille and Leo discover each other properly for the first time is both utterly beautiful and heart-wrenching, especially since the revelation takes place behind bars.

The ensemble of Parade

Photography © Cameron Slater Photography

Victoria Hope has one of the stronger female voices in this production - whilst this serves her well in solos and in duet, she overpowers some of the others in choruses, rather than blending in. This is particularly evident in Factory Girls/Come Up To My Office, where she drowns out fellow singers Jennifer Webster and Nazerene Williams. This makes us think Williams has an overly feeble voice, but in Rumblin' and A Rollin', she demonstrates that she in fact has a delicate, soft one and can also inject some sass when she wants to. Williams is a far better singer than we originally give her credit for, and the blame for this does lie with Hope. She has some gloriously powerful vocals which enable her to match the strength of the orchestra, but needs to reign it in somewhat when being part of the ensemble. As far as the male vocals go, it's Moulton who stands out with his distinctive voice showcased in Rumblin' and A Rollin', as well as comic That's What He Said with the company and soulful Blues: Feel the Rain Fall with James, Jon Parry and Brandon Force. Dean Bray alternating as Mary's heartbroken admirer Frankie Epps also deserves a mention for his clear and powerful lines.

Jason Robert Brown's music and lyrics are plentiful, with a whopping song list of 31. Much of the initial action is really short, with sudden total blackouts by Jordan Lightfoot to keep it moving and free up time for Brown's numbers. Director Jody Tranter keeps up the pace, with quick changeovers which make use of the wonderful set designed and built by Harry Johnson and Justin Williams. Dark stained panels of wood give the set a small country town feel, with the raised platform becoming Leo's factory office up on high (away from the lowly workers and noisy factory floor), a jetty where Judge Roan (Dudley Rogers) and Hugh fish together and ponder the current situation and a balcony from which Governor Slaton (Samuel Clifford) makes his announcements. With religion in the background to this play, it's appropriate that it feels almost as if the Governor is some kind of prophet delivering commandments as he explains his opinions about Leo.

The ensemble of Parade

Photography © Cameron Slater Photography

Much of the book is surprising, but as it's based on a real story, it doesn't quite get the full Broadway makeover. In many respects, that lack of tying up loose ends is refreshing, but the realisation that this - or something similar - actually happened is quite a sobering, chilling thought. The character of Tom Watson (Force) is an odd one. We first notice him during Watson's Lullaby when he mourns Mary's death and we don't quite know why. He later reveals himself to be one of Hugh's biggest supporters, but his presence in the storyline is perhaps intended to be unsettling; one of the real-life players involved in Leo's downfall. We ache for the Franks and desperately want a happy resolution for them - they've come so far. The turning point is the courtroom trial where de-la-Haye's face is ashen, as she silently weeps - the focus isn't on her character, though if you look in her direction, you realise how distraught this woman is, and that it's her love for her husband destroying her rather than the wagging tongues she originally feared. It's a superbly subtle moment.

The juxtaposition of the memorial parade with Leo's downfall is oddly upsetting, like someone passing away at Christmas - when tragedy occurs so close to times of celebration, it can often feel worse than it should. With Confederate Memorial Day always hanging over the Franks, it's Tom Chester's drumming and Maude Wolstenholme's horn which attract the most attention, however Sophie Creaner on reed and Erika Gundesen and Chris Ma on keys all deliver an equally noteworthy performance. Gundesen, as musical director, largely manages to get the balance right between the live band and unmiked vocals, although there are admittedly some singers who do struggle in places.

Adam Scown's choreography is varied and creative. In Pretty Music, we get some traditional ballroom, which is a delight to watch. The movement in Factory Girls/Come Up To My Office is unsettling and creepy, with an imagined version of Leo sleazily dancing with three of his young factory workers. It's a sequence about sexual harassment which is strangely compelling. I'd never have thought that anyone could portrayal such disgusting behaviour in an entertaining way which doesn't cause offence, or even come close to doing so. Scown really makes some intelligent and sensitive choices here in deciding how to draw out the comedy through the dance steps; an almost impossible feat.

It's not quite perfect, however I suspect many of the little niggles with the production will resolve themselves as Parade marches on further into its run. The company get the important aspects right, and deliver a musical with ambition, emotion and a haunting ambiguity.

Parade opened on 1st September and runs until 13th September 2015 at The London Theatre Workshop.

Nearest tube station: Fulham Broadway (District)



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