Phantom of the Opera is like an open bar of chocolate; sickly sweet but so irresistible that you can’t help but keep going back. Whether it’s the ascending drapery, descending lighting fixtures, or an irrational love of paying £70 a pop to keep reliving a days when Andrew Lloyd Webber knew how to get it right, there’s just something about it.
So after suffering from Friday afternoon theatre withdrawals, I made a post-pay day impulse purchase… Two tickets to the following day’s matinee please, faceless online ticketing company!
The premise is relatively simple. It’s 1881 Paris. A disfigured man in a white mask runs around in the shadows of the fictional Opera Populaire. Using the theatre’s owners, rotund operatic leads and an unimportant ensemble as his puppets, he engineers the story so that his ingénue, Christine Daaé, gets the main parts on stage. Meanwhile her childhood beau shows up looking for a bit of skirt.
The problem: Christine prefers good looks and money over crazy men in sewers. She also has a suspicion that the Phantom is her dead and buried father. Awkward.
I’d heard good things about Gerónimo Rauch’s interpretation of Phantom, but have to say that while his voice is strong, I left feeling that something was missing from the performance. Despite the promise of the show’s title, the Phantom is actually only on stage for a short amount of the two and a half hours.
While many actors in the role manage to grab the audience’s attention during their on stage time (see Ramin Karimloo – outstanding voice and a jaw line that makes even the Phantom’s prosthetics look attractive), with Rauch there were too many times I found my attention wandering elsewhere. In fact, he only seemed to come into his own during the last five minutes of the final lair scene, when he was on stage by himself. That said, there was nothing intrinsically wrong – it just left me feeling a tad nonplussed.
As for the rest of the principal cast (all present and correct on this evening – a rarity at Her Majesty’s Theatre these days), they’re starting to seem a little tired and like they’re going through the motions. Granted, we’re six or seven months into their run now, but I’m still paying good money here…
Harriet Jones was on as Christine; a safe performance with good vocals, and nice to see someone who looks younger and more impressionable in the role. Sean Palmer was Raoul; less irritating and with more of a stage presence than others I have seen play the part. Martin Ball and Andy Hockley played Messieurs Andre and Firmin respectively; inoffensive but lacking presence on the day.
In terms of the score, there’s something about Phantom of the Opera that just works. With a good balance of power ballads, rocky anthems and good old-fashioned musical theatre ensemble pieces, everything works together to create an audibly varied evening, backed by one of the strongest orchestras in a London theatre.
From the (frankly incredible) ‘Overture’ as the stage reveals itself at the beginning of the show, to the iconic ‘Phantom of the Opera’, and more tender numbers ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘Music of the Night’, it’s cheesy to say that there’s something to please everyone, but that is the case. (Admittedly, this is also a downfall for anyone hoping for an evening of consistently big organ-driven anthems.)
Even after 25 years, the staging can’t be faulted, and the work by Maria Bjornson and Andrew Bridge is putting a lot of the west end to shame. Both grand and simple, there’s a lot to appreciate (although the incredibly noisy Masquerade staircase being wheeled back into storage isn’t one of them!)
Often, scenes are played out with one or two scenic elements on stage, along with a few decorative curtains. But these combine to create very real locations – no more apparent than in the shifts between front of house and backstage. Lighting helps here, too, with a simple design that leaves dark open spaces rather than attempting to draw attention to itself.
If anything is starting to look dated, it’s the visual effects; candle sticks rising from the lake, sudden appearances on stage by multiple Phantoms, that face in the mirror, the end… All are great in their own right, but we’ve now seen them too many times in other copycat productions.
Still a visual treat with a solid score to back it up. Engaging enough for the popcorn theatregoers, powerful for the romantics, and has just the right amount of humour to keep the scrooges happy. Lost a star for the slightly inconsistent cast.
And the seat…
Stalls, row N, seat 16. I’ve always had a bit of a phobia of being too far under a circle overhang (it’s always nice to get the full picture!) but admittedly this was a decent spot. While the top of the proscenium was missed by a matter of inches (and a few short moments of the chandelier’s rise and fall), the dress circle above came nowhere near obstructing any of the action on stage.
One thing, though: the seating in Her Majesty’s Theatre has to be among the most uncomfortable in the west end. Non-existent padding and an upright back only led to plenty of shuffling from myself and my neighbours throughout.