A year after its UK première in Gloucestershire, Clive Nolan’s sumptuous rock opera has justifiably graduated to the West End, albeit to one of its lesser-known theatres, but, auspiciously, close to Piccadilly Circus and the premier league temples of Shaftesbury Avenue. Following the intimacy of Cheltenham Playhouse, I found myself ensconced in the even more confined cellar that is the Jermyn Street Theatre for two enthralling hours of bold music and entertaining story-telling. With space at a premium, however, enterprising director Ian Baldwin opted to field a smaller cast, as well as sacrifice some movement and all the dance sequences.
For all the enforced adaptations, it was still a tremendous little show, and one which deserves to be a whole lot bigger. The score is the musical equivalent of a mountain range: consistently high summits, not just the occasional lofty peak surrounded by low, featureless valleys. Songs like the pulsating Quatenary Plan, the thrilling The Girl I Was and Share This Dream, the heartening Amelia and the sinister The End Justifies The Means are as good as anything in Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, and would easily stir patrons of the great Theatreland venues round the corner.
It doesn’t stop with the music. This goes way beyond a costumed progressive rock concert, on which subject take a bow, couturier Natalie Barnett – your splendid creations are a veritable labour of love. It is well-crafted theatre, thoughtfully lit and absorbingly told, and thriving on the “Less is more” philosophy. Any remotely intelligent audience can engage its imagination and fill in the blanks, especially when there is only enough room for two cleverly-designed, multi-purpose structures and a central plasma screen displaying scene-setting images. Even so, the scope for stunning sets is considerable. As tonight’s presentation reached its climax, with High Priest Anzeray enthroned in blinding light, I readily visualised a stage thronging with huge, druid-like gatherings in a vast illuminated cathedral. The dank squalor of Newgate prison would be equally atmospheric, and how about clouds of smoke drifting through a moonlit Highgate Cemetery, as Lord Jagman’s disciples waltz through their midnight danse macabre?
The reduced chorus may have been bolstered by its CD equivalent, but there was ample redemption in the excellent solo work. Creator-composer Nolan as Professor Samuel King is the show’s anchor, a stable maypole around which the remaining principals gleefully dance. There were stand-out performances from Matthew Ronchetti, whose rich voice was perfectly suited to the role of William, while Agnieszka Swita injected plenty of character and fine pathos into the doomed Amelia. Victoria Bolley’s sweet portrayal of Eva was crowned with her soaring soprano tones of great purity, and Andy Sears invested charismatic villain Jagman with an endearing degree of mischief, proving how easy it is to like the bad guy.
A grand night out; my mind is already racing ahead to Alchemy’s debut at a major provincial or West End auditorium; it won’t be a day too soon.
Review Simon Lewis (The Echo)
Photos by Thomas Konsler