Julian Eaves reviews pop opera Bare by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere now playing at The Vaults in London.
29th June 2019
The closing scene of this pop opera is one of the least poppy and least operatic in it and the one that packs the most dramatic power. When it occurs – reminding us of the harsh real stories that lie behind the safe fun and games of theatrical pretence – it makes us reflect that perhaps, just perhaps, were it less devoted to providing entertainment and more focused on telling the strong message that it wants to leave us with, the whole show might work a lot better.
As things are, what we get is a rather conventional back-stage story about a Catholic high school in the US putting on a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where the actor playing the male lead is bisexual, involved with not only the girl who plays Juliet, but also a boy who plays Mercutio, and the latter is his more long-standing and deeply felt relationship. The scene is therefore set for romantic strains to be brought to a bubbling point by immersion in the pressure-cooker world of the Montagues and Capulets. And, mechanically, that is what Jon Hartmere’s libretto gives us, while Damon Intrabartolo’s music keeps the feet tapping to immediately catchy tunes which, right after you’ve heard them, are immediately difficult to remember; his ballads are infinitely better, and these fill up more of the latter part of the show, to terrific effect, but nothing quite as moving as the truly gorgeous choral writing, which is here given superlative performance by a wonderful cast.
However, in this particular production, you would not necessarily know all that. First of all, the band – music director, Alasdair Brown, sound design, Ross Portway – is waaaaay too loud all through the opening half hour or so of the show, the entirety of the exposition, so most people coming to it for the first time are unlikely to hear enough of the text to be able to work out who all the characters are, what they want, and why – above all – we should care. That is what happened to nearly everyone sat in the expensive seats around me at a regular performance of the show (not a press night) that I saw. And what seats! They are THE most uncomfortable ones you will currently find in London. And at just shy of £40 a go, that’s a lot of money to throw away just to get an appointment with an osteopath. Not only that, they are positioned on the flat and BELOW the stage, so you miss a lot of detail of the choreography and onstage action. And (it gets worse) the performing space itself is a long, corridor-length, thin slice of platform down the long side of one of the underground vaults below Waterloo Station; while it has a small section that protrudes just enough to allow a few dancers to squeeze onto it, objects will and do get knocked from it and towards the audience (luckily, none actually striking paying punters at the performance I attended).
Still reading? All of the above is none of the fault of the actors, or musicians, or the director or choreographer. If you took their work, gave them better sound balance, and an appropriate space in which to show their work to the public, you would have a much more successful production. Sadly, SR Productions, which has come up with some very successful – and much smaller scale – work have made some fatal miscalculations here that, effectively, ruin everyone else’s work.
This is a crying shame. Julie Atherton directs with ease and aplomb through a show which has a great many very awkward transitions. I have seen this piece before, and so I know where they are and what problems they can cause. She avoids all of them. She also gets wonderful performances from her mainly young cast. The Jason (Romeo) of Darragh Cowley is a physical knock-out – especially when he strips down to his amazingly well-filled boxer shorts… good for him – and the Ivy (Juliet) of Lizzie Emery is a strong, beautifully-voiced performer who will surely go far. Her antagonistic room-mate, the Nadia (Nurse) of Georgie Lovatt, pretty much stops the show with her ‘A Quiet Night At Home’. And there is superb support from the director of the high school’s production, Sister Chantelle/Virgin Mary, the US-born and raised Stacy Francis, who raises the roof with her ‘911! Emergency!’ and ‘God Don’t Make No Trash’. For these performances alone people should be queuing up to see this show.
Add to them the terrific support of the rest of the cast: Tom Hier’s glorious Matt (Tybalt) is a magnificent tenor who is already carving out a career in the big lead repertoire: when you hear his voice you will know why! Beautiful tone, effortless support and crystal clear delivery (when the band – of just five! – is not drowning him out). Athena Collins is worthy of mention, because of her utterly magnetic onstage presence. Alongside her in the Virgin Mary scenes, Georgia Bradshaw as Kyra comes into her own. Liv Alexander as Diane and Beccy Lane as Rory also get their moments to shine, as does Tom Scanlon’s athletic Zack, Bradley Connor’s robust Lucas and Alexander Moneypenny’s shrewdly observed Alan. Hollie-Ann Lowe is a very capable Swing. And then there are the other grown-ups: the superb Claire, Peter’s mum, of Jo Napthine, who – again – also gets to stall the show with a stunningly rendered ‘Warning’. Mark Jardine is a smoothly credible Priest. The only member of the company who seems ill-at-ease with his part, and it is not easy to work out why is Daniel Mack Shand’s Peter (Mercutio). Maybe he was having a bad day: notes were often approached from below pitch and he appeared to struggle to hold lines in shape; but, more than that, he just didn’t give the part the same kind of energy that was present everywhere else in the company; his Peter comes across as a bit of a drip, which is the production’s single disappointment. This surprised me: I liked him very much as Jeff in [Title of Show], produced with huge success by the same company at the Waterloo East recently.
Another winning feature of this presentation, and one which deserves special attention is the superb choreography of Stuart Rogers. I saw his work in the Urdang Academy production of the same show at Finsbury Town Hall a couple of summers ago and loved it. Now, he has matured even more in his use of the dance episodes, and – of course – is working with more experienced performers. Despite having to achieve his results in an almost impossible space, the effects are magnificent (if only we could see them better). The lighting, by Andrew Ellis, is often very evocative and thrilling, but there are times – a few – when bright lights are blazed into the eyes of the audience for just a little bit longer than is strictly comfortable. I don’t mind having to squint occasionally, but I suspect some people probably do.
Anyway, there you have it. The show would be very good indeed, could the producers just fix several key problems. Will they? We shall have to see.