NODA review of The Phantom of the Opera: Youth Group Production

by Richard Fitt

at a performance on 14th November 2017

I have a confession to make: I have never actually seen this show in its entirety, although I am of course familiar with the music and the basic story. It is only available to youth groups on the amateur stage, but rarely performed, due mainly to cost and licencing restrictions. I’ve never been a huge fan of his Lordships work (yes, I know – Philistine!) and I never got around to venturing to the big smoke when it was on in the first place. So, I really had no idea of what to expect of my visit to Sharnbrook, to what I knew in advance was to be a sell-out performance. And what an evening we, the audience, were in for!

The basic set designed by Barry Thompson, slickly stage-managed by Gerry Stafford, was of course the ornate Victorian stage of the Paris Opera House, painted in grey green with two ornate boxes at arch level with the all-important chandelier. To the rear and above the stage was a wide walkway which chillingly served as the graveyard, roof of the Opera House and the Phantom’s lair. With the exception of the manager’s office, where part of the box set folded out, all other scenes were props and furniture for the purpose. A special mention to Christine’s dressing room which, with the use of the mirror for the first appearance of The Phantom, was very effective indeed. I’ve still not worked out how they had Christine’s reflection in the mirror whilst the Phantom managed to appear through it at the same time. Good magic trick, well executed! It fooled me!

Lighting by Alex McKenzie & Sam Toner and sound by Garry Mawbey, with the exception of a couple of opening night glitches (aren’t there always!) was pretty impressive all round: good stage washes, spot on cues and, certainly by the second half, crystal-clear sound. Quite a feat with a full house acting as effective sound proofing!

Costumes were something to behold: classy, stylish, colourful, totally in period and very well thought out. Virginia Pope and her team: Ann West, Claire Elliot, Margaret Reading and Denise Smith certainly know their stuff and how to maximise their resources. Who will forget that brilliant tableau at the beginning of Act II, or Christine’s fabulous dress for All I Ask Of You! Not forgetting either the splendid wigs by Susan Moore. Properties by Zandra Saxby, Leisa Cooke and Michelle Reading added the icing on the cake, particularly with the auction sale items in the first scene, very macabre.

The real stars of the show have to be the makeup department of Kaye Stevens assisted by Charlotte Simpson, with their artistic input, particularly with the Phantom of course. It must have taken a while to make it that good!

I felt a little sorry for The Phantom Youth Orchestra under the direction of Michelle Reading, as, if I understand this correctly, they weren’t even in the theatre but tucked away somewhere outside in a portable cabin. Testing to say the least, so what a splendid job this bunch of youngsters did! A couple of bum notes here and there which could be put down to first night nerves. It was mostly top notch all round. Well done to Faye Tolliday, Agatha Bec, Katie Murray, Jonathan Davis, Joseph Perkin, Alfred Flowers, Sophie and Ross Simpson, Jack Bunker, Rowan Dymott, Hannah Sutton, Abraham Walking-Lee, Leo Smith, Kaushik Ganeshan, Daniel Mihailiuc, Ella Rose-Smith, Holly-Alice Morton, Joseph Hirst, Liam Bradshaw and George White.

These days, the difference between the ordinary and the excellent musical is often down to the standard of the choreography, and here Eve Oliver and Rachel Alexander had done an exceptional job and the cast had obviously worked very hard on it. It was imaginatively thought out and very well executed by the entire ensemble, but especially by the young dancers, Hannah & Kate Whiteway, Emily Brightman and Taylor Stock.

Director Barry Thomson says in the programme he has been acting and directing for the last thirty years at Sharnbrook and it certainly came to fruition here. Stamping his authority and using all that experience has drawn a performance out of his young cast that is certainly exceptional. At no time did you think it was a ‘youth performance’ or find yourself making allowances for age. It was simply as good a show as any fully-mature amateur cast would aim to achieve.

What really made this show exceptional was the way the young cast handled the singing. These are not easy songs, usually calling for voice training, even Operatic training at the very least, but the maturity with which they hit the notes and put across the emotions within them was just beautiful to listen to. I’ll come onto individual voices later, but I would defy anyone who listened to a recording of this production not to think it was a fully mature cast. Eat your heart out Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman and company, these kids really nailed the numbers and then some! Absolutely wonderful singing!

The acting side wasn’t exactly shabby either. Bewlay Stanton as The Phantom is clearly a shining star in the making. This young man would appear, on this showing, to have the full armoury: his singing voice was mature way beyond his years. I certainly look forward to following his career. His opposite number Lily Hesketh-Joslin as the girl of his ambitious desires, Christine Daaé, was equally as good and her rendition of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again gave me goosebumps. To complete the top billing, Sam Robinson as Christine’s fiancé, Raoul, is also a man with an equally bright future: a beautiful duet of All I Ask of You with Christine was a highlight for me. A class act of leading players.

A particular mention for Naia Elliot-Spencer as Carlotta Giudicelle for her fabulous operatic arias, an impressive skill, rarely seen at youth level. Adam Russell as Ubaldo Piangi was equally up to the task as her opposite number in their performance at the Hannibal rehearsal. Jake Stevens and Chloe Graham imposed their authority on events as the new theatre owners Firmin and Andre. Beth Webb as Madame Giry, the stern ballet mistress was particularly impressive: it’s not easy to play an older woman with a rod of iron, but she managed it with great conviction.

The rest of the supporting cast, Beccy Cooke (Auctioneer), Greg Beeden (Reyer), Will Taylor (Joseph Buquet and a Police Officer), Leah Sigsworth (Nurse), Joe Leonard (Fire Chief), Hannah Whiteway (Passarino), Toby Smith, Cynthia NtPieta (Police Officers) were all pretty faultless and convincing in their various roles. And thank you to the rest of the enthusiastic ensemble who sang their hearts out: Rosa Alaluf, Holy Armstrong, Chloe Bartle, Keeley-Beth James, Sian Macaulay, Toby Smith, Rachel Spavins, Alice Toner and Rose Watson-Read. In fact, an all-round top-draw cast.

I’m told that Sharnbrook Mill Theatre’s Patron, actor Hugh Laurie, attended the dress rehearsal and described the production as ‘stunning.’ Who am I to argue with the great ma? It would appear that the future of theatre is alive and well in Sharnbrook.

Finally a footnote from Alison, my better half who accompanied me to the show and who didn’t like it when she saw on Broadway, so wasn’t really looking forward to the evening:

“We were lucky enough to be able to catch a word with Barry Thompson afterwards. I say lucky as people were justifiably lining up to congratulate him and he kindly introduced us to a representative of The Really Useful Company who was standing with him. I am confident she will have reported back that Sharnbrook Youth Theatre did them proud and, if not, then she clearly wasn’t watching the same show I was!”

Thank you to Dave Oliver and his team for your usual warm hospitality; always a pleasure!