Ye Olde Rose And Crowne
13th October 2017
If ever there was a show desperately in need of rediscovery, reappraisal, and a serious relaunch, then this is it. I saw it three times during its first production at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End, and can tell you that audiences and critics then, especially the critics, and definitely also me, utterly failed to grasp its many beauties and strengths. Instead, the show became a kind of temporary grotesque attraction, a sideshow of ghastliness that people ‘in the know' felt they had to go to in order to laugh at it, to mock its pretentions and perceived awkwardnesses, and to congratulate themselves on having spotted so many faults and been able to know so much better than its writers and creatives and cast. Since that production closed in 1989, it has not been seen in London since. Anyone spending even five minutes in the company of this latest presentation by All Star Productions in their home above a pub in north London, a remarkably assured and confident revival of the work, will not remotely be able to understand why.
Director Tim McArthur (assisted by regular collaborator Jamie Birkett) and Musical Director Aaron Clingham have entirely rethought the show and come up with a brilliant strategy for making us join them on their path of rediscovery. Right from the very first entrance into the auditorium, skilfully arranged to go via an unfamiliar route (the Rose and Crowne has an enthusiastic and loyal regular clientele, but I suspect the arrangement will catch any spectator unawares), we come into a space that has been just as boldly reconfigured in stark diagonals, transformed into a world of subterranean industrial gloom, thanks to the design by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, lit strikingly by Vittorio Verta, who brings more than a touch of futurismo to this German Expressionist myth. The presence of the original silent film by Fritz Lang (to a scenario by himself and his wife, Thea von Harbou) looms largest in the opening choreography, splendidly realised by Ian Pyle – another prodigy of this house, and in the opening clutch of costumes from another regular, Joana Dias, but thereafter slips away, leaving us to engage with the story as re-imagined by the writers of this show.
The career of composer Joe Brooks sank like a stone a decade ago into a morass of allegations of Weinsteinian ugliness: indicted for multiple casting couch rapes, rather than face a trial, Brooks took his own life as recently as 2011. Now, the American composer of ‘You Light Up My Life' and many another gorgeous tune is exhumed in front of our eyes as the creator of one of the most magnificent musical theatre scores to have been written in this country. The opening ‘101.11' is as chilling as it is electrifying, and with a big cast of seventeen, wisely unamplified, voices belting the score out to us, we immediately forget that we are in a small, fringe theatre, and are imaginatively thrust into a place where big stories get told. Dusty Hughes, who is much better known for his dramatic works and television plays, is the author of the book and lyrics, and here he shows himself to be a superbly capable librettist, condensing the spectacle and sweep of Lang's movie and emphasising the human story at its heart. Additional material comes from another Briton, David Firman, who is accomplished in many fields, not least in film scoring, and there is much here to make the show sound splendidly cinematic, as well as intensely felt and private.
Here, in fact, we seem to get the full immediacy of a family drama. There is the cold, authoritarian father: Gareth James's perfectly understated John Freeman – he makes his entrance number, ‘The Machines Are Beautiful', as honest and touching as any Conservative Party Conference speech. He battles it out for the obedience of his son and heir, Rob Herron's magnificently thrilling Steven – a performance that is sure to win him accolades as well as the attentions of the casting directors of every major West End blockbuster: he has one of the strongest, most securely founded heroic tenor voices that I have heard in a long time, as well as an impressively attractive physique and granite good looks. The object of his affections is the hypnotically fascinating Maria: Miiya Alexandra sings her soprano part with equally fine precision, and her duets with Herron, not least the big tune, ‘It's Only Love', are one of the highlights of the show; then, Maria morphs into the ruthless robot Futura, and Alexandra plays that Odette-Odile dualism for all its worth, and so does the production. Making up the fourth corner of this family is the cleverly feminised Dr Warner, inventor of Futura, played with slightly more than purely motherly devotion by Kitty Whitelaw, who lends everything she does a touch of the Countess Geschwitz (from another iconic statement of the period, ‘Pandora's Box').
Around this infernal quartet, fighting it out between the airless, toxic netherworld of the ‘workers' and the sunny, spoilt, leisured land of the ‘elite', we meet another 32 or so roles taken by the ensemble. Among these, Michael Levi walks off with the peach, getting the character of George, who is blessed with some great music, including the hit number written for Stifyn Parri to introduce in the original production, the stunning ‘The Sun'. Alex Ely makes a scary henchman of the steely Jeremiah, and Mark Mackinnon creates the ominous heavy of Groat. Contrastingly, Tom Blackmore, another promising newcomer, gives us passion and drama as Marco, beautifully matched with the rest of the high-powered ensemble of Shannon Kavanagh, Mikey Wooster, Natalie Jayne Hall (dance captain) and Freya Tilly – who are devastatingly memorable as Elitists, Michael Larcombe, Laura Hyde, Tami Stone and Kieran Wynne. The clutch of ‘children' needed for the plot are created by puppets, voiced by the last four named players, thus preserving in their scenes the tension of the rest of the show, and not allowing any ‘softening' of its impact. The singing is superb throughout, and features some excellently delivered choral ensembles, as well as rousing anthems, and a complex array of numbers of all shapes and sizes – embracing many popular, rock-based styles and telling the story in a near-continuous stream of music, where textures range from the most intimate, chamber-like passages, all the way up to barnstorming, stadium-sized showpieces.
Amazingly, the band carrying all this music into our ears comprises only Mr Clingham at the keyboard, Ashley Blasse on guitars, Ollie Davie on bass and Janette Williams doing percussion. Astonishingly, just this quartet of players creates the awesome performance of this fascinatingly varied and rich score. Long neglected – for whatever extraordinary reasons – surely this show has now found its audience again. This is a great new step forward for All Star Productions: a major rediscovery of this totally unjustly neglected masterpiece of a musical. I was lucky enough to see it in previews and was thrilled to return to see it again on Press Night. It's the kind of show that makes you want to go and see it again, and again. Rush to get tickets to what will be one of the fastest selling shows of the year.
Until 5 November 2017
Photos: David Ovenden