Last night I went to the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, where the venue’s small studio area, the SecondSpace, had been converted into a big-screen cinema for a live relay of The Phantom of the Opera’s 25th anniversary gala at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s the first time I’ve been in the SecondSpace when it’s been in use as a performance area: the ingenious, adaptable design allows the seating to retract fully away into the walls and for a partition to be removed, making for a large open-plan bar area which was used for drinks receptions at the venue’s grand opening and at the gala night for last year’s pantomime.
Because of the retractible nature of the seating, I had expected that they wouldn’t be quite as comfortable as the luscious, generously proportioned seats in the main auditorium. And they’re not – but they are far better than I’d imagined, even if the fidgety old couple at the end of our row did cause the whole bank of seats to vibrate every time they shuffled around.
I wasn’t there to review the seats, though, but to see a transmission of the souvenir performance marking 25 years since The Phantom of the Opera blasted onto the West End stage (the actual anniversary is next weekend). A specially constructed set in the Albert Hall took over the whole of the choir and organ end of the auditorium. The upper level boxes were cleverly extended round to include Box Number Five, which the “Opera Ghost” demands is kept for his sole use. The main stage space saw the orchestra perched atop a series of ornate archways, with a lighting rig doubling as a faux proscenium arch that occasionally descended to show activity in the ‘fly tower’ above.
What there was of the set looked sumptuous, an extension of, and tribute to, the original designs for the show created by the late Maria Björnson. They were complemented by a huge rear projection screen behind the orchestra, and smaller ones in the ground-level archways. Writing on his daily blog at The Stage, Mark Shenton (who was sitting near the front of the stalls) decried the projection quality:
I really missed, for instance, the magical journey that the Phantom and Christine make through a candle-lit lake to his lair. The real place to see this is in a theatre, not on projections; I longed for 3D glasses to make them seem more real!
I’d be curious to know what people who were sitting further back in the auditorium felt about those projections: on our cinema screen, they seemed particularly effective when the camera pulled back to show their full effect. Used to portray the domed top of the opera house, with the hazy environs of Paris beyond, the effect was superb. There were times when the cameras got a little too close, and the resulting pixellation nullified the otherwise decadent atmosphere of the sets.
I have to agree, though, with Mark on the ‘destruction’ of the chandelier at the end of Act 1. No attempt was made for it to descend, no use of the projection screens to add any additional drama to one of the show’s trademark moments. Some pyrotechnics did look impressive (and having been at the Albert Hall for another show where pyro work was done above the audience’s heads, there is no denying the frisson it provides), but it was clear that some design compromises had been made because of the three-performances-only nature of the show. A UK touring version of Phantom has been announced: staging such a technically demanding production in a variety of playhouses around the country will force other design choices, but one hopes they’ll learn from what didn’t quite work at the Albert Hall.
What did work, in general, were the vocal performances. Sierra Boggess’s Christine – a role she played in the Las Vegas version of Phantom before originating the same role in the sequel, Love Never Dies – really fleshes out a role which, even in Gaston Leroux’s original novel, is generally just slappable. As her long-time friend and newfound romantic interest Raoul, Hadley Fraser (a newcomer to the role, and currently appearing in Cameron Mackintosh’s other long-runner, Les Miserables) added a similar warmth.
As the titular Opera Ghost, Ramin Karimloo (who has played the role in both Phantom and Love Never Dies, the latter alongside Boggess) was also good – although the post show curtain call by a selection of previous (and current) Phantoms perhaps showed that he wasn’t necessarily the strongest performer among all those who could have taken on the mantle in this anniversary show. However, Sarah Brightman’s post-curtain call performance did the opposite, underlining how Boggess was the perfect choice to play Christine.
A special mention must go to
Kiera Duffy as Carlotta and Liz Robertson as Madame Giry, both of whom brought out sides to their rather limited characters that can quite easily get missed.
But some real and unsung stars of the show were the broadcast director and camera crew. While you can never hope to replicate the atmosphere of being in a live theatre space, we were often treated to angles and close-ups that you would never see from the best seat in the house. Sound may have been an issue – some sort of automatic limiter kept dipping the volume when things got too raucous – but otherwise you couldn’t have wished for a better live relay.
Updated to correctly credit Wendy Ferguson, who stepped in to replace Keira Duffy as Carlotta. Thanks to @Danielf90 for pointing out the correction.