'She' in Cheltenham 2012: A Review by Pete Waite
I think it is safe to say that when you watch a musical production like this (or opera or ballet) you get most out of it if you have some idea of what the story is about beforehand. So, to prepare for this trip, we watched the DVD of the show in Poland and both Mrs P and I have been listening to the live recording on iPods and in the car. I think this really helped.
We arrived in Cheltenham early enough to see the understudies do the matinee performance, which was more enjoyable than perhaps you might imagine. The understudies were normally members of the chorus and they were all markedly different in appearance and styles compared to their counterparts. There was quite a good turn-out crowd-wise so we got seats towards the back.
A mention of the venue is needed here. It is a really nice little place, with a capacity of about 180 and relatively comfortable seating... I found it a little firm/hard but comfortable enough for a 2 hour show. Every row of seats was higher than the row in front of it, so every seat had a pretty good view of the stage. this is not to say that everyone could see everything, since some of the action took place on the "balcony" to the right of the stage (from which Clive also conducted the show). Sitting where we were for the matinee, we couldn't properly see that balcony, and this must have been true for about 30+% of the audience. Also, due to a strange concave/dome-like back wall behind us, I found that we were sitting at the point where reflected sound was focused, so some of the sound from the show was oddly amplified. Before the show started, a woman talking to her friend, several rows in front of me, sounded as clear as a bell and just behind my right ear! Weird.
The placement of the musicians "on stage" was equally clever and frustrating. The four players (drums, guitar, bass and keyboards) were on a balcony at the back of the stage, above and behind the action. They were also largely obscured from view by the scenery, I don't think many people believed there was a keyboard player until he stepped out to take a bow at the end! Where we were we could see Mark Westwood (guitar) and Kylan Amos (bass) and a bit of Scott Higham on drums. I wouldn't have tried to hide these guys quite as much, if it were my call.
One frustration for me (although I fully understand why it was done) was the boxing-in of Scott Higham and his drum kit. In a perspex box (with lid!) he was giving it his usual joy-filled gusto but, at times, he sounded more like the drummer in the flat upstairs, rather muffled. Of course, it would have been rather hard for the performers to cope with raw drum sound so something had to be done. The trouble for me was that a lot of the energy for the show on DVD came from the beat and the obvious pleasure Scott gets from it.
Anyway, back to the matinee. We were particularly impressed by the lady who covered Agnieszka's role. A tall order because the part really relies on having the drama cranked up to 11. The lady in question, Victoria Bolly, did jolly well, seeming to warm-up to the part as the show went on. We didn't find out until later that all of her costumes were completely different to Agnieszka's, so she didn't have the big swirly sequinned capes, etc. which might have helped even more to carry it off. Anyway, well done her.
The rest of the understudies did well with only a few variations from the lyrics and stage directions. Nice touch to have some (not all we noticed) of the principles handing flowers to their counterparts at the end.
Between shows we nipped out to check-in to the hotel and get smartened-up a bit and returned for the sold-out final performance.
Having been "promised" Row E seats (on the cross-auditorium aisle for maximum leg-room!) I was initially a little disappointed to be on the end of Row C, but the leg room was ok (despite the pillar) and we could much better see the balcony... but couldn't see the musicians at all, apart from a bit of Scott's kit. However, these weren't bad seats, I think if we had been on the other end of Row C we would have had possibly the worst seats in the house.
The show itself was markedly better with the main leads in place, they had much more of a "presence" and seemed to lift everyone a little too. Christina's ability to get into the part was evident and her singing was the best of the night. I think Alan Reed was on the tail end of an illness and you could tell he was working hard to hit the high stuff, but hit it he did. Both he and Agnieszka seemed to have small niggles with their in-ear monitors.
There were small points to pick up on, of course, but this is where expectations come into the equation. This was a cast made up of predominantly amateur dramatic/operatic players with a small dance troupe added-in. There was always going to be the moments when cues were delayed or words went astray, or dress hems were stepped on or... But it's churlish in my view to point at these things as being bad, just as the occasional tech gremlin or forgotten lyric makes live music what it is, these things characterise small budget theatrical shows.
Hats off to all concerned, I think they did themselves proud. "West End" it wasn't but it was still a marvellous production.
Really looking forward to seeing what Clive does net with the Alchemy show, which won't feature all the same cast...but will feature quite a few of them.