Review by Richard Fitt
17th November 2015
Sharnbrook are never a group to shirk a challenge and boy do they like to set themselves one.
Parade is a musical which is little know and rarely performed and lasted only 89 performances on Broadway. Its theme, based on a true story is about racism and a miscarriage of justice in the deep south of America, where a Jewish factory manager is wrong accused of the murder of a 13 year old girl factory worker. All deeply uncomfortable themes including an on stage lynching in the final scene. One is never going to leave the theatre on a high with a feel good factor.
That said it was a roller coaster of an emotional ride from the poignant opening of ‘The Old Red Hills of Home,’ beautifully sung by Matthew Perren to the finale ensemble version of the same song. The musical numbers are complex and difficult to sing and the company showed its class in mastering this score with great confidence. Kaye Tompkins as musical director ran a very tight orchestra, which was a joy to listen to.
That said I did find the balance between the vocals and the band was out of kilter quite a lot of the time and listening to the words did become a bit of problem which meant the plot was not always clear. I don’t think I was the only one with this problem as I overheard several members of the audience saying the same thing. Whether this was down to the sound engineering or the complex overlays of the score I’m not quite sure.
The set design by Director Paul Frecknall was an ingenious ‘warehouse’ that ironically one could imagine was probably not far off what the inside of the Mill looked like before its conversion to a theatre. Suitably gloomily lit by Alex McKensie it was period perfect, complete with aged timbers, a rickety staircase and a balcony which all doubled up as court room, prison cell, street scene and the Frank’s house. The balcony serving as Frank office, a river bank and the hanging tree. Neatly thought out and well utilized. One was totally transported back to early twentieth century Georgia.
The direction was pacey and skilfully done, particularly in the street scenes which were pure tableau. The choreography by Melanie Coleman cleverly made use of the entire set, no mean feat with the various pillars and levels available, or should I say, ‘in the way.’ David Russell is a consummate and convincing actor with a singing voice to match and his portrait of Leo Frank was once again a class performance. The same could also be said of the leading lady, Kaye Stevens as his wife Lucille Frank. The tension between them at the beginning of the story where he goes to work instead of going on her planned picnic through to their becoming emotionally bound by the circumstances of events showed the class of these two actors. Beautiful renditions of ‘What Am I Waiting For’ and ‘All The Wasted Time’ put the icing on the acting cake.
The supporting cast were also all convincing to a man and woman with Rod Arkle as the Governor Slaton, John Stevens as Tom Watson/Detective Starnes, Lester Cooke as Britt Craig/Guard Peavy/Riley and Michael Horne as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey as perhaps the stand out strong performances of note. I also note several members of the cast are new to not only the Mill stage but to The Stage itself. If I hadn’t have read that in the programme, I would never have guessed it. Prince Caesar (Newt Lee) and Spider Diedrick (Jim Conley) are obviously talents with a bright acting future, not to mention great voices. Both had key roles in this production and rose to them with conviction and confidence. I hope to see more of them in the future.
Now the real star of this show has to be Virginia Pope and the costume department. A lot of research and detail had gone into clothing this show and what a difference it makes. Cleverly set a few years earlier than the actual narrative, they reflected the fact that The South was not the Paris of America and would have been a few years behind the times. The late Victorian/Edwardian era suited the piece perfectly, i.e. if the attitudes were behind the times then so would be the fashions. And that kind of thinking is what in my opinion makes the Sharnbrook Mill Theatre the cut above, professionally run outfit it undoubtedly is.
Finally, if there was a front of house NODA award then Ian Lawson and his team would certainly be a front runner. Thank you as usual for your excellent hospitality. It’s always a pleasure to visit what has to one of the best amateur theatres in the country.
16th-21st November 2015
Director: Paul Frecknall
Musical Director: Kaye Tompkins
Production Manager / Choreographer: Melanie Coleman