Review of Phantom of the Opera

Garth McConaghie
Composer / Sound Designer

For a small(ish) country school, Dalriada has always punched above its weight with extraordinary achievements, both academic and extra-curricular. When I was a pupil, the rugby team surprised all, including TV sports journalists, by reaching the final of the Ulster Schools’ Cup. Even Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoine appeared on teatime news, from a sun lounger in Italy, to wish them good luck. (He was playing for Lazio at the time.)

It may come as no surprise then that as a proud ex-Dalriad, I carry a certain amount of bias in reviewing the annual school play. I tried to set this bias aside on Saturday night for the final performance of Phantom of the Opera. I was immediately struck by the variety of playing areas. Inventive staging allowed for performance in a number of locations throughout the house, as well as on the small, traditional stage in the John Armstrong Hall. At one point, The Phantom and Christine made a superbly choreographed journey through these spaces in their performance of the title song. The performance areas were richly appointed and textured with effective (if somewhat ‘literal’) set design, lighting and props. Clever use of what appeared to be a ‘pianola’ (a piano which plays itself) was a lovely touch. I was also delighted by the use of ‘practical lights’ upstage, to create the wonderfully atmospheric effect of flickering candles. Costumes and make-up were uniformly excellent and I was pleasantly surprised that performers’ were able to use radio mics in front of the speakers without the usual squealing feedback expected of school productions. Professional stuff indeed and kudos to all the talented pupils involved in set design, props, wardrobe, make-up, sound and lights.

One advantage of a school play over a professional production is that you generally won’t find an orchestra pit in a school hall. On Saturday night, this allowed the audience to see and hear the well rehearsed 25-30 strong orchestra (three quarters of whom were pupils) perform Lloyd-Webber’s orchestral score in all its glory. There were standout performances in the areas of woodwind, strings and keyboards, with certain parts being effortlessly swapped, shared and performed with the ease of seasoned theatre professionals. A special mention should be made of the talented young percussionist, Jack Nevin, who held the entire performance together with aplomb. One to watch, I should think.

On stage, it was obvious that this production was a huge team effort, with no one dropping the ball amongst chorus, stage team and principals. The excellent, self-choreographed ballet chorus broke up straight lines onstage and made things interesting. Most impressive, for me, was the razor-sharp diction. The most important choices for any musical theatre production are to do with how the text is communicated. Head of Music, Heather Montgomery, had clearly drilled these songs to perfection and the evidence was in the details. There were several assured performances with comic relief provided by Thomas Hancock and Chris McLean as Andre and Firmin respectively, and Hannah Frizzell as Carlotta. Not merely subsidiary characters, this trio deftly performed some of the more technically difficult operatic passages from the score. Standout acting performances were Lydia Pollock’s Madame Giry and Chris Nevin’s Raoul. Pollock and Nevin welcomely provided subtle and nuanced performances not often found in the decidedly unsubtle world of musical theatre. David Tang made a complex and emotionally unhinged Phantom with his tremorously unsettling interpretation of the character. Other notable performances were by Daniel White (Piangi) and Aoife Cameron-Mitchell (Meg) who, as she funnily pointed out in her program comments, repeatedly sang, He’s here, the Phantom of the Opera!’ This, rest assured, she did extremely well.

As a professional Composer, I’m always searching for talented new performers. On Saturday night, my internal radars flashed to a cacophony of alert beeps and alarms when Rachel McClelland began to sing as Christine. In McClelland, Dalriada truly has a west-end performer in the making. I don’t know what her career aspirations are but I expect that she’d be welcome at Central, Arts-Ed, Trinity Laban, the Italia Conti, or any of the major stage schools. Curiously for this being 2014, her vocal instrument harked back to a slightly earlier period of musical theatre, conjuring the legendary Sarah Brightman and Elaine Paige in a performance which was at once both fresh and nostalgia-evokingly quaint. As with many of these talented pupils, I’ll watch with interest to see where she’ll go from here.

Phantom of the Opera has been viewed by over 100 million people worldwide. It could be argued that certain aspects of the book/score haven’t aged well and it does at times feel like it really belongs to 1986 with all its cheesiness, non(ish)-PC characters and silly melodrama (hard to get right, dramaturgically). However, those infamous riffs and power chords, combining organ with electric guitar and power drums, are as infectious and affecting now as they ever were. That, and the delicate orchestration on the timelessly beautiful, ‘Music of the Night’, remind us of why this emotionally resonant show was such a huge hit in the first place.

Whether or not a new theatrical production is any good boils down to a series of choices and, more specifically, to the choices made by those steering the ship. Director, Margaret Kane and Musical Director, Heather Montgomery, have made a lot of good choices on Dalriada’s 2014 production. The final proof? Rapturous applause and standing ovations from a hugely appreciative audience.