Picture the scene. The date: Friday, 17th October 1986. The location: London’s glitzy West End. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the place to be, as Phantom of the Opera had opened a couple of days earlier to sensational reviews. In Stalls seats B9 & B10 (costing a stupendous £18.50 each) were a young Mr and Mrs Chrisparkle (actually she wasn’t Mrs C then, still the demure Miss D). Behind us, in inferior seats, the comedian Dave Allen (very short, accompanied by a very glamorous lady); a couple of rows back, to the side, Australian ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. On stage: Steve Barton – a heroic Raoul; Sarah Brightman – a stunning Christine; Michael Crawford – a gobsmackingly brilliant Phantom. Such nights are the stuff of life-long memories.
And we’ve never seen Phantom since, until this week when the current touring production has come to haunt the Milton Keynes theatre until 24th November. The original, of course, is still on in London, but this touring production has a different director – Laurence Connor; a different choreographer – Scott Ambler (one of our dance heroes); a different set designer – Paul Brown; and wisely keeps Maria Björnson’s original costume design. The overall impression of this combination of creatives is that the production is overwhelmingly beautiful; it looks and sounds luxuriously sumptuous throughout.
The set in particular is just superb. From my memory, I think it’s scaled down only a tiny bit from the original production but looks just as opulent/mysterious/bleak delete as appropriate, depending on the scene. As in 1986, we were sat directly underneath the notorious chandelier. In the original production the Phantom famously sends the chandelier hurtling down towards the stalls, or, if I remember rightly, what actually happened was that it floated gently like a glittery blancmange and we didn’t feel remotely threatened by it. In this production, it shakes violently and little shards of broken chandelier drops land on your head – very clever and effective. I also loved the way it came to life in the opening auction scene, a brilliant bit of design magic.
The scenes depicting the staged operas are lavish; the scene where they descend the side of the building to reach the Phantom’s boat is still extraordinarily atmospheric; the owners’ office is plush and comfortable; the rooftop is chilling and threatening. Whilst outstanding in itself, the set never dwarfs the action, rather it becomes an extension of the action, complementing it superbly. Similarly, Scott Ambler’s choreography for the ballet scenes convincingly suggests a highly skilful production of Hannibal or Il Muto, whilst not actually drawing our attention too much from the plot of Phantom. And the orchestra under the direction of Craig Edwards is officially fabulous. Romantic one minute, scary the next, it’s a brilliant score and they give it everything – you’d have thought there was a full symphony orchestra out there.
So what of the performances? And how do they compare with the originals, or is that a really cruel thing to do? For me, there was one absolutely standout performance that was at least as good as back in 1986, and that was Katie Hall as Christine. She looks perfect for the part, in that she is beautiful in a fragile sort of way, and she has a superb, clear, powerful and emotional voice. Her love for both the Phantom and Raoul felt absolutely genuine and gave the love triangle a real bite.
I’m uncertain as to how Raoul ought to be played really. Should he be very keen but a bit wet behind the ears, or should he be dashing and brave and heroic from the off? Simon Bailey’s performance edges towards the heroic by the end but, as Mrs C observed in the interval, despite his reassuring words promising protection to Christine in “All I Ask of You”, Mrs C says she would have had more faith in George Osborne. Nevertheless, he looks right, he’s a very good singer and he got a very warm reception from the audience.
Actually, this was one of the most genuinely enthusiastic rounds of applause at curtain call we’ve ever heard. Mr Bailey had quite a few cheers, Miss Hall had loads of cheers, and as for Earl Carpenter, playing the Phantom, well, I thought some of the ladies in the audience were going to need St John’s Ambulance assistance. At least I would expect a run on Ventalin from the local pharmacies. For my part, Mr Carpenter has a great voice and can belt out a great tune, but I thought he enunciated some of the lines almost oversensitively; in attempting to convey the Phantom’s heartbreak and internal agonies his voice pussy-footed through some of the lyrics making them a little bit hard to hear. Additionally, there were a couple of times when the Phantom’s disembodied voice is making demands on the other characters, when I felt that he sounded too soft and insufficiently threatening in comparison with the other onstage noises – doubtless a sound engineering/mixing problem. Mrs C said she remembered being totally moved by Michael Crawford’s performance but that this didn’t move her at all. I have to agree, I didn’t quite get the emotion from Mr Carpenter either – but judging from the reception, we were in the minority.
The other roles were all performed very well – I particularly liked Elizabeth Marsh as Madame Giry, an excellent mix of the charitable and the domineering, and Angela M Caesar as Carlotta, giving us some superb coloratura and also bringing out the comic elements of the role in a credible, non-pantomime way.
A pet hate: all three of the main performers, particularly Mr Bailey, in moments of high emotion, changed “all I ask of you” into “all I ask of yew”. A simple mispronunciation; yew is a type of tree. I may have to set up a campaign for the re-introduction of “yoo”.
Another pet hate: the front stalls seats in the Milton Keynes Theatre were again a disappointment. We were in Row D this time, with no rake over the two rows in front of us, and not much space to put our knees. We had to inconvenience about fourteen people in order to get to our central seats, and even when people stand up, there’s hardly any room to squeeze past. I hate to think what would happen if you were in desperate need of the loo during a performance; trying to get out would cause row-rage. I’m reasonably tall, and Mrs C is a bit shorter, but neither of us could see what was going on at Stage Left floor level. I understand the Phantom was having a right woeful time of anguish at the prospect of Christine going off with Raoul but frankly from our viewpoint it was just hearsay.
However on the good side, they seem to have opened up that members’ only club area in the foyer that always looked virtually empty anyway, and used the space to create a piano bar. It gave the foyer so much more atmosphere and warmth, the charming piano playing lent an air of refinement, and by creating another bar counter where people could order drinks, it made the queues for the other bars much shorter, which is eminently practical when a big theatre like the MK is sold out. I do hope it’s going to be a permanent fixture, as it has transformed the vibe of the place completely – well done!