School of Rock – New London Theatre

When taking someone to the theatre, it is always a nervous experience. They have put their trust in you for the selection of the production and you hope that they will enjoy it and get as much from the performance as you.

On a recent visit to School of Rock, I took my little sister. She is 13 and this was to be her first West End musical. Her previous exposure to musicals had been school plays and Sunday afternoon viewing on the television. What was she to make of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest offering?

With no knowledge of the 2003 film, she was to view this show with fresh eyes. She sat and watched, she laughed, she clapped and all seemed well. I waited until the train home to quiz her and find out her thoughts. The verdict – it is brilliant!

She loved the relationship between the kids and Dewey Finn (played superbly by Gary Trainor). The student/teacher dynamic kept her attention and, for someone at school, it is a relatable relationship. The back and forth wordplay is funny and witty, full of asides and references ensuring the pace of the show never drops. My sister is from a generation that is used to the instant. Google, Facebook, Spotify, and other have illuminated the need to wait, to sit still and have provided an array of satellite distractions. What Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellows have done here is offer a show that captures the imagination of this generation without ever being patronising or ignoring the parents and older siblings in the room. The show is for everybody and everybody will enjoy it.

Another point that she found impressive is the fact that the kids on-stage play their musical instruments live. It is great to see young people being empowered to reach their potential and do what they are capable of doing (in this case singing and playing music to packed houses in the west end). Let’s hope the School of Rock’s message spreads and young people will have the chances to engage in whatever activity they excel in and be the best they can be.

One thing that my sister definitely took away from the show is the soundtrack. Full of catchy rocky numbers, Mount Rock and Stick it to the Man being firm favourites, the show will stay with audiences for a long time and it is a welcome bit of fun that everyone needs in their life.

Food and Drink in the Theatre

Imelda Staunton has recently divided opinion by saying she thinks food and drink in the theatre should be banned. She cited the noise it creates as a distraction and wondered why people were unable to sit for an hour or two without the feeling the compulsion to eat. Are her comments fair? Is she right?

Many people enjoy an interval ice cream and so they may well disagree. Personally, I agree with Staunton. One of the annoyances of the theatre is hearing rustling papers or crunching crisps. The point of a live performance is that you are transported to another space, another world and become absorbed in a story. Any noise outside of the world on stage takes you out of it and breaks the illusion. Theatres are designed to carry sound so even when you think you are being quiet – you are not.

Will theatres be inclined to listen to opinion and ban food? I doubt it. The mark up on the products provides too much revenue to miss out on, revenue which goes to the running and management of these old and aging buildings.

What is the solution? Perhaps producers will offer the occasional opposite to relaxed performances, a performance where food and drinks are banned to illuminate the unnecessary distraction. Failing that, courtesy should prevail. After all, you wouldn’t go to work and sit in a meeting eating kettle crisps and giant buttons, so why would you at Imelda Staunton’s place of work?

The Braille Legacy – Charing Cross Theatre

Louis Braille is a name familiar to us all for inventing the system of raised dots that bears his name, allowing the blind to read. He is the subject of a new musical, The Braille Legacy,  currently playing at the Charing Cross Theatre,below the station of the same name.

His story takes place in an institution, in France and follows his formative years as a precocious student and the resistance of the ‘establishment’ to allow him to develop his system.

This musical by Sébastien Lancrenon and Jean-Baptiste Saudray, for me, lacked the necessary drama to warrant it being a musical. As the audience are familiar with Braille and what he did, the focus of the show is on how he did it and, the linear narrative meant that the story was, sadly, all too predictable. It was once said that the songs in musicals should come at the point where emotion reaches its zenith and there is no other option but to sing and use music rather than dialogue. The dynamics of this piece failed to provide the peaks and troughs, leaving the audience feeling rather flat.

Don’t get me wrong, the show does have its merits but I fear they lay away from the writing. The cast was superb, especially Jérôme Pradon as Doctor Pignier, the encouraging head of the institution, eventually forced out by his want of reform. Indeed his song, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the motto of Paris, was a highlight of the show.  The design was also very well executed. The monochromatic look of the piece, with a revolving set, was used by the director, to great effect.

Overall I am pleased to have seen this production however I feel that it doesn’t yet quite work as a musical and the story of Louis Braille may work better as a play.

(Late) Thoughts on Whisper House

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent addition to his theatre portfolio, The Other Palace, has a noble quest. Put simply, it is a place to develop and nurture new musical theatre writing. Working off a similar model used on Broadway, Lloyd Webber hopes that his venue will be able to allow for more diversity on the musical theatre scene and also develop emerging talent. Bravo!

Whisper House is the latest production to be staged in the main house, the second since the theatre was rebranded (formerly the St James’s). The production comes with a sound pedigree. Duncan Sheik, the show’s composer and co-lyricist also wrote the multi-award winning Spring Awakening – so we are in safe hands.

The first thing that you notice about the production is the bold design. Andrew Riley has created a sunken stage to emulate the design of a lighthouse. The space is both interesting and dramatic and gives you a flavour of what this new venue is all about. The shape of the space is not for your traditional musical.

Now we come to the story. Set in the 1940s in America, there is the threat of invasion from German U-boats in the harbour. Christopher, a small boy, is sent to live with his aunt after the death of his pilot father and his mother’s incarceration in an asylum. It soon becomes apparent the aunt is living with a dark secret which has something to do with the two ghosts who semi-narrate proceedings.

The promise that this piece is a ghost story, for me, never quite delivers. It feels somehow a naive concept, one that is never quite fulfilled. The historical story, with its own sense of fear and foreboding, I believe, is enough. Adding in the ghosts waters down the potential message which audiences could take away. After all, it’s a story set in America, with a threat from foreign countries and restrictions being imposed on immigrants. Sound familiar? If the story had focused on this element, the allegory would have been a better fit. But that, after all, what a developmental process is all about.

If the ghosts had to be part of the story, I would keep it to one – just the female ghost. The whole cast were excellent but Niamh Perry has immense stage presence which draws the eye. Her voice is also phenomenal, able to be both haunting and beautiful. If the ghosts needed to be there, I think a focus on the female character would have intensified the mystic and menace, especially in the scene where the ghosts beckon young Christopher into the water.

As well as Perry, Simon Lipkin’s performance as the Sheriff is noteworthy. The first half suffers a little from pacing issues, but that is rectified in act II, largely by Lipkin’s energy. He is interesting to watch and perhaps the most developed of the characters,

The music for the production is the star. It is a wonderful score, fitting to the story brilliantly. The band of seven works well together to produce a wonderful sound that fills the space but is never overpowering in such an intimate venue.

The show is enjoyable and is interesting in its construction. I would like to see the piece again once it has undergone the development as part of The Other Palace experience and see what comes out of this great experiment of Lloyd Webber’s.