'She' in Cheltenham 2012: A Review by Magdalena Grabias
The Epic Journey of 'She'
It has been a long way that Clive Nolan's 'She' has gone since its first performance at the Wyspianski Theatre in Poland. This first show in 2007, a few months later released on DVD for viewing pleasure of fans all over the world, was more of a concert version enriched by some theatrical elements like costumes, props or indeed the venue itself - a stylish theatre dating back to the turn of the 20th century. The audience assembled that night in Katowice consisted mainly of progressive rock enthusiasts - admirers of talents of many of their idols gathered for this occasion. Many travelled across the country to watch this curious event which brought Clive Nolan, Alan Reed, Christina Booth, John Jowitt, Mark Westwood and numerous other prog giants together on one stage. Not with less interest were we watching the leading lady of the show, a Polish singer Agnieszka Swita, whose star was just beginning to shine. By the end of the show, not a soul in the audience had any doubts as to the reasons of Clive's choice. Agnieszka proved to be perfect for the role of the immortal Queen, Ayesha and charmed the audience with her powerful voice and charismatic performance.
It took another three years for 'She' to reappear on stage - this time in a fully theatrical production and far away from home of everyone involved. In January 2010 'She' was performed over two nights in Teatro Eagles in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The original cast with even more rock celebrities like Hugh McDowell (ELO), were joined by Bolivian chorus, dancers as well as Bolivian and Chilean musicians. It became clear almost immediately that not much of the initial concert version was left to be found in this truly lavish production displaying so much of the South American vibe and spirit. The choreography and dancing routines were enough to quicken the pulse of any European viewer, and in combination with powerful voices of the singers and virtuosity of the musicians, the whole show built into an impressive big scale event that will undoubtedly stay in the memories of Santa Cruz dwellers for a long time. It came as no surprise that after this event, Bolivian government decided to award Clive with a title of Honorary Visitor to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for his artistic achievements in the fields of music and theatre.
In September 2011 the 'She' artists, assembled under the name of the Caamora Theatre Company, returned with the eight-man-show to perform 'She in Concert' in Zoetermeer, Holland. The show featured 4 singers: Agnieszka Swita, Christina Booth, Alan Reed in their original roles, and a new member David Clifford as Leo; and 4 instrumentalists: Clive Nolan, Mark Westwood, Scott Higham, and the new Caamora bassist Kylan Amos. As announced, the event had a character of a rock concert offering the opportunity to witness the sight of the musicians, who not confined by the scenery or other theatre restrictions were clearly having the time of their life playing with joy and vibrant rock'n'roll energy. Only the costumes were there to remind the audience about the theatrical nature of 'She'.
The first UK production of 'She - the Musical' in Cheltenham was an entirely different case! Over 50 people involved in this once-more-fully-theatrical production were working on the show for nearly a year and a half. From the very beginning the idea of putting 'She' in Cheltenham met up with enthusiasm of the town, local theatregoers, as well as prog fans, who, as always, were more than happy to travel tremendous distances just to be the part of the experience. For Clive himself it was more than just another challenge. He was returning to the land of his school days, where as a boy he was a pupil at Wycliffe College and King's School in Gloucester. Moreover, the Playhouse Theatre, where the 'She' shows took place, had a sentimental value too, as this was the place where, together with his parents, Clive used to watch plays and shows back in his childhood. Thus, can we assume that it might have been precisely this small, but nonetheless historic and genuine theatre that had such an impact on the future composer?
Whether such was the case, or if the inspiration came from elsewhere, there we were up for a treat of four days and five shows of 'She - the Musical'. And it was something to see! The show evolved again. Next to the main cast, Agnieszka Swita, Christina Booth, Alan Reed and David Clifford, two new characters were added: the high priest Billali, played by the uncommonly gifted bass singer Peter Hughes, and a handmaiden Rehani, performed by the talented Soheila Clifford. Both characters received new parts, which brought a new dimension and diversity to the show. Additionally, the introduction of the new characters provided the opportunity of dusting 'The Hermit', a song originally sang by Agnieszka and then removed from the show after the Polish production. Soheila's masterly interpretation breathed life into the tune again and the thrilling voice of the young singer was awarded with long-lasting applause night after night.
Performances of the four leads were not a disappointment either. Agnieszka once more proved to be an ideal Queen, who hypnotised audiences with her charismatic voice, powerful rendition of the role and her thespian skills. Christina as a tragic leader of the Amahagger tribe was as always a true delight to watch and listen to. Her strong warm voice, which stole the hearts of many prog fans all over the world, lingered in between the theatre walls long after Ustane had died and disappeared from stage. Alan and David - two companions, explorers and adventurers offered some most appealing performances too. Alan's rough voice suits the role of an experienced scholar superbly and there was never any doubt as to the aptness of casting him in the role of Holly. However, his Cheltenham performances must have grabbed everyone by the throat even more than before. He sang with might and passion, and with his usual vital energy, Alan was definitely a highlight of the show. Next to Reed, David's clear baritone sounded convincing and captivating and drew a tasteful contrast in duets, trios and quartets the show is so rich with.
For David Clifford, as a director and producer of the shows, Cheltenham performances constituted even more of a challenge. Despite the fact that it was his directorial debut, his vision, involving the cast, choir and dancing team, was quite impressive. Chorus members and their acting skills deserve special attention. This truly talented theatrical group had a big impact upon the ultimate shape of performances and contributed to the genuineness of the plot and clarity of message. Choreography, dancers, costumes, lights and scenery and their clever arrangement built up the visual attractiveness of the event proving the versatility and artistic creativity of the whole production team.
On Saturday, the level of excitement and the amount of tasks to be done doubled due to the matinee show performed by the cast of understudies - the immensely talented local artists, who worked hard on their roles for months. It was the first time in the history of 'She' that the show was handed over to a completely new cast. And all the more pressure upon them, especially that Booth, Swita, Reed and Clifford took their seats in the audience. It soon became obvious that this version was not 'just' the understudies show. It was a feast of talents and fully deserved the cheers and praises it received. The actors offered an utterly different interpretation of the show. We watched with fascination delicate but firm Victoria Bolley as Ayesha singing her part with passion and luring sweet voice. Becky Carter as Ustane with her bluesy sound contrasted nicely with that of her stage adversary. Ben Perkins in the role of Leo delighted both with his singing and acting, and so did Chris Lewis, cast in the role of Holly. The male duo, as in the case of the main cast, was matched very accurately. Distinctive voices as well as singing and interpretative skills of both gentlemen resonated with strength and emotion making the show even more unique. The role of Rehani was taken over by Katie East, whose rendition of 'The Hermit' was appropriately appreciated by the audience. Only Billali remained the same and, played by the charismatic Peter Hughes, mesmerised the audience with his singing, acting and entire stage presence.
None of this would have happened without the unquestionable core of the shows - the four instrumentalists - the guitarist, Mark Westwood, the drummer, Scott Higham, the keyboardist, Claudio Momberg and the bassist, Kylan Amos. Following the Bolivian pattern, they were built into the scenery and occupied the place at the balcony at the back of the stage. A bit unfortunate arrangement, since it made them invisible, or at least hardly visible from the auditorium. The audience was able to catch a glimpse of Mark and Kylan and occasionally Scott - stuck in the drum booth on the other side of the stage. However, Claudio Momberg, who two years earlier was a part of the Bolivian shows and now came all the way from Chile to participate in the UK production, was completely hidden and in the dark and only came to view during the curtain call bow. Tough theatre rules, I guess, and perfectly understandable too... However, with musicians of that calibre - each of them a rock legend and an institution himself, the fans and followers could feel a bit disappointed with the lack of that visible energy we could experience in Holland. Nevertheless, we could still feel it - top shelf artistry and highly impressive virtuosity. Not surprisingly, it was the band, smiling brightly up there above the volcano, that was cheered and applauded most enthusiastically after each performance.
And what about Mr. Nolan? For the sake of this production Clive abandoned his previous role of a lead actor and singer. Neither was he playing keyboards. This time the author of the musical decided to undertake a difficult role of a conductor. He joined the cast on stage for the final bow, which was the only moment that the whole audience could actually see the composer. Nevertheless, even though mostly invisible during the show, the long and loud applause showed that the viewers fully recognised and appreciated the importance and the role of the 'spiritus movens' of 'She - the Musical'.
The climax of almost a year and a half of work on the Cheltenham production took place on Saturday in front of a sold out theatre. The final show was received with enthusiasm and standing ovations from the multinational crowd followed by speeches from David Clifford and Clive Nolan himself. The evening ended with an encore (a rather unusual procedure in the theatre world), and when the last notes of the choral 'Sands of Time' died out, it was time to draw the curtain over the next chapter of epic journey of 'She'.
Four days of Cheltenham shows were a satisfying experience for the cast, crew and viewers alike. Both regular theatregoers as well as numerous prog fans could find something of interest in this production. Actors, singers, musicians and dancers played their parts dutifully and convincingly and the musical interpretation of the old Victorian novel certainly brought Haggard's story back to life again. Let us hope that the February 'She' production was just the beginning of the artistic reunion of Clive Nolan with his hometown and that the Playhouse Theatre will be given to host 'Alchemy' and many more musicals to come. Let them come! And Cheltenham, you should be proud... for your boy and everyone involved did a fine job!