views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Phantom
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
17th May 2013

★★★★☆

Let me start by saying that this is not a review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's West End hit Phantom of the Opera. Nor is it a review of a cheap imitation - Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's Phantom may be based on the same novel by Gaston Leroux, but it's a very different story, with both musicals standing confidently apart.

Given inspiration has been drawn from the same source, many of the characters are naturally similar. However, one of the most notable divergences is in the portrayal of the titular Phantom. Yeston and Kopit's Erik (Kieran Brown) doesn't terrorise the opera house wilfully, he only interferes when he feels his safety is threatened. His relationship with the talented young singer Christine (Kira Morsley) is purer - so much so that when he carries her off to his underground lair, he believes he is rescuing her from a baying crowd rather than kidnapping her. Equally, Christine refuses to think that his intentions towards her could be anything other than kind. He may be swathed in myth and rumour, with an idea of him feared by many, but ultimately, he's much more human. And, of course, with Erik being a far more relatable version, and yet so isolated as a direct result of his disfigurement, this makes the Beauty and the Beast theme more relevant, and more uncomfortable.

In the gaps between songs, we see Erik explain a recent attack on the opera house to newly-fired manager Carriere (Tom Murphy) in a rather blase manner, making him more of a comedy killer than a serious psychopath. Erik may have once again gone on the rampage, but he petulantly tries to blame the older man. The back and forth between them is engaging and humourous. Whilst we're acutely aware of Erik's potential to harm, we're not scared of him.

Further laughs are ably brought by the almost panto-ish pair Carlotta (Pippa Winslow) and husband Cholet (Andrew Rivera). Winslow in particular, playing the role of a talentless diva, pulls off the difficult feat of manipulating a skilled voice into sounding rather less tuneful, whilst maintaining a high level of power and control. Like Erik, we know she is one of the darker characters, but we don't take her too seriously as a villain, the overall tone of Phantom never hits such depths.

On a rather more critical note, it seems that all directors on the fringe circuit have decided to stage their productions in thrust recently, which has been largely fine. But here, we're left with th impression that director Dawn Kalani Cowle hasn't chosen to seat the audience around three sides of the stage for any artistic reason, simply to try to increase venue capacity. There were plenty of moments where our view was completely obscured - there was simply no consideration in the blocking for the seats in the wings. When seats are sold as equal, rather than full price and restricted view, it is never acceptable for the audience to miss out on so much. And, most unforgivably, we didn't see any of the visual impact of the final tragic scene.

But sitting where we did, we benefited from being much nearer to the performers and as we could hear the powerful vocals of the entire ensemble close up, this wasn't a wholly unsatisfactory trade off. There is a phenomenal amount of vocal talent in this production - there are plenty of accomplished elements to Phantom, but it's the sheer quality of the singing that makes it a show to recommend.

Although the technical issues with the direction regrettably prevent us from giving Phantom five stars, the emotion captured in this piece is stunningly beautiful. When Erik and Christine first sang together, we sensed a very believable connection, which gave us goosebumps. In their subsequent shared numbers - Music Lessons and You Are Music - we felt this again. And even in the songs where they were thinking about each other but not actually dueting - My True Love and My Mother Bore Me - this magic remained.

The musicians - Wirya Satya, Andrew Cowburn, Madeleine Cole, Catriona Cooper and Rachel Monaghan - led by musical director Aaron Clingham on piano - delivered a flawless performance. Tucked away behind a curtain, they provided both gentle incidental music and powerful accompaniment as required. Clingham must be the most reliable musical director in London, whenever we spot his name involved with a production, we can be assured the melodies will be perfect.

Lighting from Sky Bembury was atmospheric throughout, particularly in Act I Finale, where the ensemble try to hunt down the Phantom. The angry reds and eerie greens highlight the performers' faces as they move around the front stage with hand-held lanterns, creating a frantic, dangerous urgency, a great way to end the first half.

Phantom may not be perfect, but it's one of the most moving productions we've seen all year. And if you do book tickets, make sure you race to Walthamstow to get the best seats. It's a shame that this book has been branded "The Other Phantom", because it's a strong offering to musical theatre in its own right - if anything, Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart's production suffers in the comparison.

Phantom ran from 14th to 31st May 2013 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Centre (Victoria)



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