'She in Cheltenham 2012: A Review by Stephen Lambe (Classic Rock Society)
She Must Be Obeyed
As many will know, the Clive Nolan’s dramatic musical adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s romantic melodrama was first produced as a double album and recorded as a live DVD back in 2008. Since then, it has been produced in a concert format at the Boerderii in Zoetermeer in Holland, and a sumptuous stage version in Bolivia in 2010. For this first UK stage production, a slightly more modest setting had been chosen, Cheltenham’ s cosy 200 seat Playhouse Theatre. The chosen format was to mix many of the principle singers and players from the original production with a supporting cast of enthusiastic locals. Joining Agnieszka Swita in the title role of Ayesha, the 2000 year old Queen, were former Pallas frontman Alan Reed as Holly and Magenta’s Christina Booth as Ustane, plus drummer Scott Higham and guitarist Mark Westwood. With Clive wisely stepping down from the lead role of Leo, new face David Clifford (who some will remember as the drummer in 1990s prog-folkers Red Jasper) stepped in, his clean cut, matinee idol good looks almost perfect for the role, not to mention his excellent singing voice. As a local man, David also took on the demanding double role of producer and director of this challenging production.
As Clive told me when we met up a week after the shows, on the night that Arena played Wath at the Classic Rock Society Awards, the production was faced with a variety of difficulties that might have scuppered it. The size of the stage was compromised by the need to accommodate all the musicians, particularly Scott Higham whose energetic style, forged in many a rock gig with Pendragon and other bands, meant that he had to be completely enclosed in a Perspex box to avoid sound leakage. Even then, there was no room for Clive to play keyboards at all, so he retired to the conductor’s podium instead with Claudio Momberg the lone, hidden keyboard player. This left the stage somewhat cramped when full chorus and dancers were in place, but the production got away with it – just! With the rest of the cast made up largely of local performers, the “amdram” nature of the production was always going to require a certain suspension of disbelief, but thankfully the entire cast acquitted themselves very well indeed, my only criticism being perhaps the rather variable quality of the dancers themselves and a couple of clunky of dramatic moments, a victim, one suspects, of the very limited budget. From a rock fan’s point of view, the underpowered house PA was also, potentially, as issue, but I was soon able to adjust to its limitations, given the intimate nature of the venue.
It is worth saying that for me, “She” is not a musical, but a Rock Opera in the fine tradition of “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”. It is, after all, entirely sung with no dialogue at all, and has a very operatic structure. What it does have is some terrific material, particularly in its first half, and more than enough decent tunes and emotional high points to make it worthy of the West End. If there are criticisms of the piece itself to be made, they are largely that the second half could be opened up a bit, lurching, as it does between variations on the Leo / Ayesha relationship. But this is a minor criticism in an otherwise terrific piece of writing and some opening out has indeed happened with two new characters created for the production, Billali, played with presence and charisma by Peter Hughes and the servant girl Rehani, performed with a delicate innocence by David Clifford’s daughter Soheila. Her solo number, “The Hermit”, in previous versions sung by Ayesha, provided a pleasant moment of relief from the emotional intensity of the second half.
So on to the principle players. Over the two performances I saw, the standout performer was Christina Booth as Ustane, whose consistency of acting and singing, not to mention her feisty persona, very much the equal of Ayesha in the crucial confrontation scene, are worthy of considerable praise. That she was given some of the best, and most melodic material was not lost on me, of course, and after her exit at the beginning of the second half, the production much missed her. Alan Reed should also be lauded for not so much acting, but inhabiting his role as Holly, his presence and charisma forged by many years in Pallas. As for the leads, David Clifford deserves real praise for his classy turn as the dashing hero. As for Agnieszka Swita in the title role, this was surely the role she was born to play. While her voice is an acquired taste, her performance got the balance between scenery-chewing pantomime villainess and vulnerable, lonely, passionate woman just about right. Hers was an excellent performance in a show where she has far more singing to do than any other character. Borrowed from the Bolivian production, her dresses were sumptuous as well.
I also caught the Saturday matinee performance by the understudies, and the principle players brought some interestingly different characterisations to their roles. I was particularly impressed by Ben Perkins as Leo, who’s performance was almost the equal of David Clifford’s and Chris Lewis as a mature but dignified Holly. However, it was the two female leads that gave the most interesting interpretations of their parts. Lacking the regal grace and passion of Agnieszka, Victoria Bolley instead delivered a powerful and beautifully sung study of cunning and evil. Praise should also go to Becky Carter for a more submissive, but equally valid, performance as Ustane.
Overall, bearing in mind that this was largely an amateur performance on a tight budget in a small venue, I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed every second of the three performances I witnessed. Writing these words several weeks after the event, “She” has stayed with me as much as any piece of art I have experienced in the last few years. Clive and David should be very proud of what they have achieved in Cheltenham, and I look forward both to future performances, of “She” and also of Clive’s new piece “Alchemy”, which the same company will produce in Cheltenham from 5th to 7th September next year. Clive is realistic about the prospects for “She” for the future, given that he is a relatively unknown composer in the world of musicals, yet his work really does deserve the big-budget treatment. Anyone got Cameron Macintosh’s phone number, or a spare million?