** Warning – This Post Contains Spoilers from start to finish**
Eight months after excitedly purchasing tickets to see my favourite show take on a national tour, the day finally came. I knew the touring version would bring about some changes and I’ve therefore spent the year anxiously avoiding spoilers... with almost 100% success. The only things I’d really caught wind of was the chandelier not falling, which I’d assumed anyway, given the logistical problems and talk of not sitting too near the front due to the high stage which (although implying there was an element of revolve) was welcome information as I’d have been gutted to have waited so long only to have a restricted view.
I sat in the mid stalls at the Wales Millennium Centre, row F in the centre. These were great seats for a good, open view of the entire stage, while also catching acting nuances (though it was more standard definition than high definition from this distance).
It’s an open set as you enter the auditorium, much like the West End production, with the Auction House waiting for its occupants behind a gauze. The main difference is the chandelier doesn’t sit upon the stage ready to be lifted to its majestic resting place high above our heads because it’s already in place, covered in the typical dust sheets.
And it’s the magical disappearance of these dust sheets where we first see illusionist Paul Kieve’s input into this show. I immediately noticed his name in the programme before the show began and was even more excited; If you’ve read my previous blog posts you’ll know I’m a big fan of Paul Kieve’s work - he’s an illusionist at the very top of his game. It’s not that Paul Daniels’s original illusions have been disposed of, as they’re still very effective today – it’s more that they’ve been tweaked to fit in with the tone and capabilities of a touring show. The one that will stick in most people’s mind is the Phantom’s disappearance at the very end – more on that later.
The set is very different to the original – not just to accommodate the many recieving theatres but to give the show a modern, updated feel. Set designer Paul Brown, who once himself worked with the irreplaceable original designer Maria Bjornson, took on the challenge and has created something wonderful for a new age of Phantom. This design focuses more on the backstage areas and the Phantoms labyrinth. I was moved by the beauty of the stagecraft during the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ song as they move from Christine’s dressing room, into the passage behind the mirror, through the catacombs and entering his lair. The journey we see unfolding before us in this production is true to the books description and is mesmerising to watch.
The main set element is a large revolving drum, which during its rotation can change a scene smoothly from Christine’s dressing room, to phantom’s lair to the manager’s office.
The outside of the ‘drum’ creates the gantries/catacombs of the Paris Opera House from which magical stairs appear to allow the Phantom and the object of his obsessions to descend into the mists of the underground lake. As the ‘drum’ rotates to reveal the phantoms lair, candles descend from the skies and float eerily above the scene. Words cannot do justice to the scenic beauty unfolding in this scene.
All this said, It was a little let down by the noticeable lack of the Christine wedding mannequin. She therefore had no sudden shock and no reason to faint, so instead the Phantom just sweeps her up and puts her in the bed – perhaps she is just really tired from her operatic debut, followed by her excitement & exertions visiting the phantoms underground world? Another reason I don’t like this omission is this mannequin highlights the Phantom’s obsessive nature and insanity.
In fact, the down-played insanity of the phantom is the thing I least liked about this tour version. I’m not sure whether this is a directorial decision or if it’s the way that Earl Carpenter plays the character. Perhaps people who’ve seen John Owen Jones in the role could enlighten me to this?
Laurence Connor, the director, has intrigued me with an interesting direction he has taken Christine’s character. In the original, she is often confused, frightened and bereaved but we have never questioned her sanity before. There are a few moments in this production where we see Christine clutching the sides of her head, distressed. Then there is the scene around the piano. As the piano starts playing itself, the stage goes from the normal ‘room’ lighting to an eerie cold wash and all the ensemble turn and point at Christine, singing the phantom’s opera suddenly perfectly where before they struggled. Once it ends they all return to their arguments, as they were, just before it happened. This creates the question in the audience mind – did Christine just imagine that, or was it the phantom’s trickery once again?
Past the Point of No Return has been perfected for this production – I’ve always felt that, despite this being such a passion filled song, the London production has kept this song quite restrained and reserved with just a hint of sensuality but none of the fire I’ve always wanted from it. With this tour, I finally got that version. Christine dances a tango on a long banquet table while the words melt from her mouth, setting alight the phantom’s longing for her and the sexual tension is palpable. This makes the moment she pulls off his mask stand out in more stark contrast as we feel the atmosphere turn from desire turn to disdain.
It’s the last 20 minutes of the show that really has people on the edge of their seats, however. For all the fidgeting, coughing and singing along(!) that had been occurring throughout, there was an absolute hush that fell over the auditorium from the moment the phantoms mask is torn off by Christine to the moment Meg holds it up into a beam of light at the end. This is where the three main characters release all the emotion & energy that has been building throughout into the dramatic finale and Earl’s portrayal of the broken man that the phantom has become is simply heartwrenching.
There is a new disappearing trick from the phantom in the last few moments of the show. Instead of Meg walking into an already abandoned lair, she walks in with the phantom still there. He is quickly surrounded by the guards and you wonder how he will possibly get away – but get away he does in a breathtaking illusion; the audience gasps were audible from all around.
The trio of performers at the heart of this production were superb and have all put their own stamp on the characters.
Earl Carpenter’s Phantom is a pitiful creature indeed... but insane? It’s hard to tell. The trademarks of his insanity from the original production – the awkward hand movements, for example – didn’t make an appearance. I miss the old school completely insane phantom’s of olde, a la Peter Karrie. And I can’t help but wonder if this is to play on the more romantic side of the story that Lloyd Webber seems to favour these days, seemingly forgetting it’s as much a story about a tortured, deformed man driven insane from a lifetime of isolation and being shunned by the world.
I also felt he occasionally stumbled over words, as though he was rushing to fit them into the sentence. Perhaps this was a character choice to portray the phantoms frenetic, chaotic mind or perhaps he really was struggling to fit the words in due to a faster paced tempo?
Katie Hall is exceptional in the role of Christine. I really enjoyed this take on the character – she seems more passionate, more in touch with her sensuality while retaining that naivety essential for her to be led by both the mysterious charms of the phantom and the confident assurance of Raoul.
Raoul was played by Simon Bailey in a way that showed his over confidence that borders on arrogance without letting it consume the character, like it did in the Royal Albert Hall concert version (which I suspect has something to do with Love Never Dies). This is important. Raoul still needs to be likeable, in my opinion. He has always been overbearing and a little controlling but he is not the monster. We should expect Christine to want to choose him. Simon’s portrayal was of a self assured man who loves and wants to protect Christine, as it should be.
I wasn’t too keen on the casting for the managers, or for Piangi. In fact, it wasn’t until toward the end of the first act that I even noticed Piangi, which isn’t right. Piangi is the leading male in the Opera Populaire and should be an overbearing presence, only eclipsed by La Carlotta. I also couldn’t help feeling that the general look Monsieur Firmin was given was rather more fitting of a certain wizard who lives at the end of a yellow brick road! This recurring thought was quite distracting.
My verdict? – This is a beautifully staged reimagining of the brilliant original, exploring some new avenues and modernising the classic for a new generation of Phantom Phans. For me, however, the London production has been dubbed ‘The Brilliant Original’ for a reason. There is something about sitting in the intimacy of Her Majesty’s Theatre with its living room like auditorium and its the old stagecraft still wowing audiences every night that really bolsters the magic and atmosphere. For this reason, nothing will ever replace the original production in my heart.