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Convalescent Critic #3: “The Phantom of the Opera” (Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion production)

brynphan

(Flyer from school website)


The sad aspect of this review is that even if it convinces you, there is no way you will be able to see this production, as we caught its last night (unless someone else caught it on their phone and puts it on YouTube, of course). However, I felt it deserved a shout-out, regardless, and that may hopefully draw attention to the general excellent of Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion’s performing arts department (who stage a new production every year).

Since all the signs of my recovery have been positive, my lovely hubby invited me to a school production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” at Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion (near Bridgend). He had heard about it through his job (he works as a library assistant in Bridgend, where he manages a junior reading group), he had heard that the school had a strong reputation for performing arts, and he was also very aware that “Phantom” is a musical I am just a little obsessed about, as I may have mentioned once or twice

As I have seen it twice on Broadway, I knew it was a big-budget production full of large-scale set pieces (including giant statues, lakes of smoke and candles, and of course falling chandeliers), elaborate stage magic, lavish costumes, and complex choreography. With all due scepticism over how a comprehensive school budget was going to even approximate this, I decided to give it its due … and was blown away.

There were, inevitably, limitations. The stage magic was necessarily simplified to accommodate the lack of trapdoors (although there were still some impressive pyrotechnic and lighting effects), and some effects such as the lake of candles and the giant statue were understandably omitted. Otherwise, the staging was much more impressive than I had dared to expect, with some striking backdrops and props (including a large pipe organ, as every good Phantom ought to have), fantastic costumes all round (which were, one gathers, worked on entirely by the students themselves), some astounding choreography including beautiful and skilful ballet scenes which made me very wistful for my sadly wasted non-girlhood in which I never got to do ballet (*sighs*), and most astoundingly of all, the two most memorable effects from the stage show were brilliantly replicated: the Phantom’s boat crossing the lake (albeit without candles, but with plenty of smoke), and the falling chandelier: another beautiful prop devised by the students.

What really made it a triumph, however, were the performances, and the fact that the two romantic leads – Christine Daae and Raoul de Chagny – were played by teen actors suited the coming-of-age nature of the story immensely. Raoul in particular has an unfortunate tendency in adaptations to be played by dashing matinée idol types, whereas in Gaston Leroux’s original novel he is clearly an angry, impulsive, near-adolescent, generally well-meaning but utterly out of his depth (and not destined to be the big damn hero, as he supposes, but the ironic damsel in distress). The actress who played Christine (Sadly, I do not know their names – I wish now that I had bought a programme – but they all deserve to go on to bigger things) brilliantly captured that character’s journey through her initial brainwashed, childish state of naive enthralment, through to growing realisation, trauma, conflict, and finally maturing into a capable and defiant person who can both resist and forgive her abuser, breaking his spirit in the process.

As for the Phantom himself – another role that has occasionally suffered from having its “romantic” aspects played up at the costs of its dark and sordid elements (particularly in the 2004 film version) – he came across exactly as he ought to: an incredible, ingenious, larger-than-life showman … but with the terrible social skills and general sociopathy one would expect of a man who would spend years living in a basement, posing as a ghost, and surviving by blackmail. Operatically intense and melodramatically confident while in his element (or behind his masks, so to speak), yet miserably inept and awkward when faced with actual human contact, he is certainly an archetype that this particular nerd (who has faced her own body dysphoria issues) can readily relate to … although I have tried to deal with my own issues in a less murderous and manipulative way, of course.

Also, I should add to the acting plaudits, that all three of the leads were superb singers, and did total justice to the intensity of the music, both in the skill and the emotion they brought to it.

Not to forget kudos for the supporting roles, and especially for the actors playing the opera house managers, Carlotta, Piangi, Madame Giry, and Meg Giry: characters on whom the comic relief burden often falls (especially during the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque “Prima Donna” sequence of Act One) but who can easily be overplayed as too grotesque to be sympathetic. This production wisely steered clear of that, let the characters have their nuances, and even worked in some clever physical comedy I had not seen in the show before (so which was presumably devised in rehearsal). Although certainly faithful to its source, this staging was clearly not afraid to interpret the material to suit its own players, and it did so very successfully.

I cannot really praise this enough. Especially considering the slender resources available, this was an amazing achievement, and a grander spectacle than I had dared to imagine possible. It was also a glorious showcase for performers whom we can but hope will be up-and-coming names in their fields. I only wish it were possible to go back again and see it tonight, but one can hardly expect Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion to permanently let its gym serve as Wales’ equivalent of Broadway and keep the show running non-stop for thirty-plus years, if only … Still, the hubby and I certainly look forward to seeing what they will stage next year.

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Perils of Persephone

Rather quicker than I had expected, there are now videos of my latest burlesque show with Cardiff Cabaret Club (Yin and Yang show, June 22nd 2018). Thus, as requested, my better judgement notwithstanding, here is exhibit A. I am the suspect at the very far right of the scene, on the dancefloor. Please be forgiving …



Also in burlesque news, I am giving thought to doing a solo routine based on Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera”: a novel with which I have been a bit obsessed ever since I first saw the Broadway show version back in 2000, seeing in the titular antihero a character whose physical self-loathing issues I could all too readily identify with. I would be reinterpreting the Phantom as a female character, however.

I have already had some help and encouragement from other members of the group, and further offers, so in spite of my inexperience (less than a year’s worth, and only two shows) it is looking distinctly possible. I have also chosen the burlesque stage name I intend to use if this does come to fruition. Eschewing pleas to use a more straightforwardly Gothic pseudonym, I have opted for “Persephone Pitstop”: half-Goth, half-silly, and it made the hubby laugh, which is all the confirmation I need (and also no other dancers seem to be using it right now, so I’m staking the claim while it’s good).

None of which is to say that I am fully healed yet – I am still on sick leave, still bruised and sore, and still tire very easily – but when I compare this to how I felt when I first left hospital, I am confident the end of the tunnel is in sight (and hopefully some exciting times not too far beyond).

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Masquerade

Curious how old obsessions can suddenly resurface… I was recently scouring my thoroughly disorganised CD collection to find something I had not listened to in a while to help me through my shift. Work, alas, continues to be demoralising, that warehouse environment being typically loud, laddish, sweary, and mansplainy, so I tend to rely on music that takes me out of it as a psychological prop. The one I rediscovered on this occasion was the soundtrack to “The Phantom of the Opera” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, Richard Stilgoe, 1986).

Incidentally, bearing in mind this play has now been showing more or less solidly for thirty years, I will assume general familiarity, but nevertheless, DEFINITE SPOILER ALERTS.

My first encounter with the show was, as seems all too bizarre and rather sad to me, a whole adult lifetime away: late 2000, during an abortive study venture in New Jersey. A friend of mine at the same university with theatre connections was able to get me good seats, and I was determined to take in Broadway before my inevitable going back home in failure (America being an expensive option for ill-prepared ex-pats without work visas). I doubt I opted for seeing “Phantom” on any stronger justification than the fact that I was even more of a soppy Goth back then then I am now, though this was violating my general rule of never seeing the adaptation before reading the original book.

Still, as I left the Majestic Theatre in tears of purest Hellenic catharsis, I felt it was a rule well broken…

Sarah Pfisterer and Howard McGillin were at the time performing the roles of Christine Daae and the Phantom, and I sometimes wish I had had the temerity or the technical know-how to have pirated their performances, as I have never seen that bizarre relationship more effectively realised. McGillin’s edgy, psychotic portrayal was unnerving to a fault, notwithstanding all of the thickly-applied romance and pathos… not that there is anything wrong with that, although I was glad of the refusal to “pretty up” a character who is, in essence, extremely abusive. Pfisterer, by contrast, portrayed Christine as the sanest character in the show, taken in neither by the elaborate manipulations and relentless gaslighting of her “teacher,” nor by the petty dramas of her co-stars and managers, yet responding to every situation with intelligence, dignity, and compassion. This comes to a head in the final scene in which her would-be heroic rescuer Raoul de Chagny (Gary Mauer) totally botches his rescue attempt and ends up in the “damsel in distress” role himself, as the Phantom attempts to use his life as a bargaining chip for Christine’s “love” (the Phantom having very unfortunate ideas about what constitutes meaningful consent). At which point, Christine completely wrong-foots him by showing compassion. What emerges is a far more haunting if less “dramatic” resolution than than obtained by the 1925 reworking, in which the Phantom is beaten up by a mob and hurled into the Seine, and Christine’s active agency and intelligence is pared down to preferred Hollywood standards, thus making her less of a protagonist and more of a damsel in distress herself… though not even this manages to conceal the fact that Raoul is a pretty useless hero.

Christine lingered on my mind, and when I eventually got around to reading the original novel (Leroux, Gaston; 1911) I was pleased to see that she was much as the play had depicted her: intelligent, independent, worldly-wise (she is not above using deception to resist her abuser), principled, and compassionate, and in every sense outclassing her vapid love interest – Raoul, in the book, being little better than the Phantom, albeit whiny rather than psychotic. It was disappointing the author felt she had to end up with either of them, mind.

Of course, there was another, very visceral reason why this play affected me so much: for its depiction of a character who feels their body to be a hideous prison / “loathsome gargoyle” / “repulsive carcass” etc, and who consequently spends their whole adult life hiding away, wearing a mask, trying to make their art a vehicle for the beauty they felt their life itself could never express. I was very glad the play finally gave the Phantom his moment of redemption, as walking out of that theatre feeling such painful empathy for a totally unredeemed character of moral equivalence to Hannibal Lecter would have been disturbing to say the least.

Soppy little Goth that I was, I cried. Soppy old Goth that I remain, I cried again on hearing it nearly sixteen years later, but not quite in such a melancholy vein. Back then it was a painful dramatisation of where I was, and felt that I was trapped for good. Today, it is a reminder of the fact that I have, albeit after a very long time, finally taken off my mask and climbed out of my basement. At times I still feel like a freak, but it has dawned on me finally that I what I see is a lot worse than what the world actually sees (Indeed, in typical performances of “Phantom” the antagonist is played by a fairly attractive actor with some nasty gashes on one side of his face, or in the case of Gerard Butler in the 2004 filming, a downright handsome actor with a bad sunburn. Either way, as Christine points out, “It’s in [his] soul that the true distortion lies”).

Still, weeping over sad musicals in the middle of a mail depot full of sweary blokes is probably not the best survival strategy for the long term, so wish me luck with the job-hunt…