This past fortnight I‘ve been to see two musicals. One an amateur operatic society production and another a large scale, professional production of a decades old favourite- in fact my own personal favourite stage show. One was better than the other, but it may not be the one you think…
Jekyll and Hyde is one of my favourite stories. Along with Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” it is a book I can pick up and disappear into. Within a few sentences I am transported back to the Victorian world inhabited by Dr. Henry Jekyll, his experimental potion and the dark underworld of nightmares he creates. The book has been analysed countless times over the years with interpretations of the theme suggesting alcohol addiction, mans own struggle with evil and good as well as the standard “religious” allegory. Though I think you’d be hard pushed to find any piece of literature where you couldn’t shoe horn in “religious allegory” as an explanation. It seems anything that deals with death and rebirth these days is a “religious allegory”. But that is a personal annoyance.
The musical version by The Bohemians Lyric Opera Company, staged at the Churchill Theatre Edinburgh, was the first time I’d come across the musical of the story. A little research shows that sadly the original professional run was not as well received as expected and the play closed having made a loss. Which is a shame because the ideas at play are wonderful.
The main issues with the production aren’t actually issues with the production at all- the biggest flaw is the first Acts song book. BLOC displayed a great range of talented voices and actors. The first Acts problem was that the songs were incredibly samey. With one notable exception (A song at a brothel) the rest of the songs were indistinguishable- not in lyrics but in feel of the music. But I hasten to add this is the fault of the song writer and not the company who through wonderful direction and performance created variety and kept the audience engaged. BLOC were amazing.
This was a large cast for a comparatively small stage, and they truly deserved all of their hard work, talent and effort as well as creativity to be seen on a larger scale. I would far rather have seen this at The Playhouse, and watched Rocky Horror- which I shall discuss later- at the Churchill. That is how good this production was. I would happily have paid Playhouse prices for this show because despite the single issue I had with the early songs (which is of course entirely subjective and I am more than happy for others to disagree) it was phenomenal.
Jonathan Collins played the titular Jekyll and his alter ego Edward Hyde remarkably. It can be incredibly difficult to play both Jekyll and Hyde as they are physically so different and Jonathan was able to create a completely different character simply by making small changes to his physical performance. When he morphed from Jekyll to Hyde the biggest change was simply letting his hair down, but this combined with a more agitated voice and more imposing stride created such a different character that you could be forgiven for thinking a very quick change in actor took place. A scene toward the end of Act 2 involved the actor slipping instantly between both Jekyll and Hyde multiple times and it was a joy to watch. With the assistance of lighting changes, Collins did the impossible and convincingly became both Jekyll and Hyde a dozen times in rapid succession. You could not help but be mesmerised by Collins.
Another actor worth mentioning is Rachel Flynn as prostitute Lucy. Rachel’s performance was just as much a Jekyll and Hyde as Collins’. A young woman who clearly wants to be more than she is, and with a strong personality and the support of Jekyll she may well have become something great, but alas her turbulent relationship with Hyde brings her potentially happy ending to a devastating close. Rachel displayed a voice and talent that quite rightly received cheers from the audience. There is little more to be said about this actor other than if she is not treading the boards in the West End soon it will be a crime against theatre.
Costume is always tricky for a large scale Am Dram performance, especially for a period piece but BLOC again managed to pull off the seemingly impossible by having several costume changes for its mammoth cast. The costume team, along with every other department deserve the most enthusiastic applause. Then we have the lighting and technical side- the creative use of lighting was on par with any professional theatre and added to the overall mood of the piece.
The staging was creative and the set constructed in such a way that we effortlessly switched between Victorian street scene to Jekylls laboratory to an insane asylum. The set crew deserve a standing ovation themselves.
The entire ensemble was amazing- from the leads to the large chorus. There was some wonderful direction involved and creativity. There was genuinely not a bad performance from anyone, and I am gushing praise here because it deserves every positive thing said about it.
Finally, a mention and applause must go to the triumvirate of Artistic Director Colin Cairness, Musical Director Ian Monteith-Mathie and Choreographer Caroline Howie who together created such stunning visuals and sound that you could not help but be blown away.
This was an amazing production, something that I would see happily again. But only if it was done by BLOC. Those who missed it have missed one of the greatest pieces of theatre that the Edinburgh theatre world has had the privilege of witnessing so far this year and I look forward, eagerly, to their next production.
This brings us to the second show that I have seen this past fortnight. My favourite show of all time, The Rocky Horror Show. This year Richard O’Briens rock and roll opera celebrates its 40th birthday and Rocky and its cast and crew have attempted to party into their next decade with style. I say attempted to.
I feel a pang of guilt having to say anything negative about the Rocky Horror Show. Almost as if I should hang up my fishnets and scrub off my mascara forever. First things first, it is simply not possible to criticise the songs in this piece, or the story or the gender bending joy of the show. It was staged to an almost full 3000 seater auditorium, mixed with long time fans shouting out “Asshole”, “Slut” and “Franks Cock” at the right moments, dancing and jiving to the Time Warp as well as obvious “virgins”. One thing that is always nice about the stage show is how Rocky as a character is fleshed out- and boy was there a lot of flesh. Rocky was played by X-Factor or Britain got Talent or Dancing on Pop Idol or whatever the hell show it is participant Rhydian. The role was played well and clearly the actor had worked hard on his physique to show off some bulging biceps and… erm… a wobbly tummy. When you have to draw on a six pack you have to wonder whether it would have been better to simply, well, not.
Having seen the show several times by various actors it is difficult not to compare. As a stand alone show, not comparing to previous works it was, as Columbia says, “okay”. It wasn’t great. The energy just wasn’t there, though that may be more to do with Tuesday night performances being notoriously bad in the arts world (Though not universally so, as Jekyll and Hyde was a Tuesday!). The best performers were without a doubt Roxanne Pallett as Janet and Philip Franks (Who you may recognise from TVs Heartbeat and as Mr Pinch in Martin Chuzzelwit). Franks was wondrous in his role as the narrator and although his retorts to the audience were scripted – with 40 years of performances, the Narrators comebacks are now as much a part of the show as the music- they were delivered in a way that really made them feel off the cuff and instant. Pallett played the virginal Janet to perfection, and it is her character that undergoes the greatest transformation throughout the piece. Although her rendition of “Touch a touch me” could have had more oomph, this is the only criticism that can levelled at her.
Kristian Lavercombes Riff Raff is also worthy of a mention and Abigail Jayes Magenta, despite having the least lines, was a joy to behold- especially with playing the very different characters of Magenta and the Usherette.
The simplicity of the set- using revolving flats to change from the castle main rooms to the lab were well utilised, and the lighting was creative and justifiably showy. You felt at times you were at a musical concert rather than a stage show. But these are the only positives for this show.
The negatives were there “in abundance”. Oliver Thornton played the character of Tim Curry… erm… sorry… Frank N Furter moderately. This is a stage show, this is a stage show that predates the movie, yet Thornton was clearly, and too obviously, trying to emulate Curry to the extent where it came across as trying to be “Tim Curry as Frank N Furter” instead of “Frank N Furter”. Even the inflection of words were taken directly from Curry’s performance in the movie, the costume was identical and the persona was a rip off. Another criticism was that he played Frank as a bit too feminine at times. For the inhabitants of Transexual, Transylvania this transvestitism is not about playing the opposite sex but simply the standard clothing. One of the best things about the character of Frank is the juxtaposition of the attire and the personality. Frank oozes masculine sexuality, someone totally at ease with their sexuality and attire, yet Thornton was playing a man playing a woman at times. This created a bizarre contrast with the moments where he channelled Tim Curry making the character an enigma for all the wrong reasons. If you want to see a good stage Frank then it is essential we bring back David Badella. Badella was a completely different character to Currys, and is the natural choice to replace him on stage. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Badella was a BETTER Frank than Tim Curry. Something that could get me shunned from future productions.
But even removing comparisons to previous actors, Thornton still wasn’t very good. He could never settle on just who he was trying to play. Frank needs to carry the piece, and Thornton failed in this task.
We then come to the set- aside from the positives mentioned above, the negatives really turned this from a first rate production into a good amateur one. The worst part was the cut out of the church at the beginning as Brad and Janet drive away. The set piece of the church seemed totally unnecessary and didn’t add anything. This was then spun around to show the Castle as they drove on. One of the greatest parts is when Riff Raff appears in an upper window during the Over at the Frankenstein Place number and this always results in cheers- and although cheers were received, simply moving the painting of a moon away like a window in the crappy cardboard cut out castle to have Riff appear seemed ridiculously underwhelming. He looked more like the baby sun from the Teletubbies than the legendary Riff Raff. It all felt so damn amateur.
Joel Montagues Eddie/ Dr Scott also felt flat and easily forgettable. The stage also felt way too small, as if it had intentionally been restricted but instead of creating a claustrophobic feel it again just felt like an am dram group with a low budget. Much of the performances seemed to be “phoned in” and the scene of Janet in bed with Frank was laughable for all the wrong reasons with the use of pretty crap false legs for when she has her legs over her head.
For a 40th anniversary show it didn’t deliver. And for a “party” version it felt more like a group of strangers sat around quietly sipping beer rather than an all out late night rave. Even ignoring comparisons to previous performances it didn’t stand up well on its own merits. Maybe it was down to being a Tuesday night, second night in the venue and it will improve. I am going again Friday and hopefully I can write a completely different review. If you’ve never seen it before you will probably enjoy it as a musical as the songs are great and it is a fun night out. But, could try harder.
The best thing I can say about this production is that it was a good amateur production, whereas Jekyll and Hyde was a wonderful professional level show. If you have the choice, go and see rocky horror but opt for one of the cheaper seats and spend the rest of the money building a time machine so you can go back and watch BLOCs far superior Jekyll and Hyde.