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Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Kopit’

I only know American playwright Arthur Kopit’s work for musical theatre – books for Nine, High Society and Phantom (the other one!). This 1978 stage play started on the radio and it seems to me that it was way ahead of its time; a complex examination of the effect of a stroke.

Our protagonist is aviator and wing-walker Emily Stilson, who suffers a stroke. We see her struggling to come to terms with her condition, but we’re seeing it from her perspective – the confusion and intense frustration, like being inside a nightmare. In hospital, we witness medical examinations and therapies, most notably for speech, though some of what we see are memories, often jumbled up. It really is an insight into brain damage and in particular aphasia. It’s only 75 minutes long but I’m not sure I could have taken more as it is a bit relentless.

Kopit’s notes and stage directions are very comprehensive, and director Natalie Abrahami seems to have respected these, but at the same time created an inventive staging. There’s a simple moving platform with moving translucent curtains, but most important of all, inspired by her career, is that Juliet Stevenson spends almost the entire play ‘flying’, only occasionally touching the ground. It’s a brave, virtuoso performance by a fine actress. One of the consequences, though, is that everyone else seemed like a mere ‘extra’.

It hasn’t been seen here for over thirty years, and I’m glad I caught it. It is insightful, and it’s superbly staged, but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying and rather depressing. Perhaps it was too close to home.

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This was written after Ken Hill’s Stratford East original but before Lloyd-Webber’s show, which sadly scuppered its Broadway intentions and quite possibly changed history. Even so, it’s had over 1000 productions worldwide but, astonishingly, this is its London professional premiere – and Maury (Nine, Grand Hotel & Titanic) Yeston & Arthur (Nine) Kopit’s show is rather good.

Of course, it shares the same source in Gaston Leroux’s book, but we get more of the phantom (Eric!)’s history / back story and the music is a nod to French operetta (somewhat appropriately for its late 19th century Parisian setting) rather than ripped off from an obscure Puccini opera set in the wild west! It’s a whole lot less pompous that Lloyd-Webber’s, with some nice tongue-in-cheek touches (this could be the production rather than the show, of course).

This is a room above a pub in Walthamstow, so there’s no multicoloured masquerade, boats sailing on dry ice lakes or falling chandeliers – indeed,the entire budget is probably less than the other one’s chandelier cleaning bill – but it’s a terrific production. This is largely due, as before at Ye Olde Rose & Crown, to sky-high musical standards plus, on this occasion, excellent casting by Ben Newsome (also responsible for One Touch of Venus here last year plus more recently A Class Act & Sleeping Arrangements at the Landor and Rooms at the Finborough).

Kieran Brown is outstanding as the phantom and Aussie Kira Morsley (her UK professional debut?) is a fantastic Christine, with the perfect voice for the part. I loved Pippa Winslow’s Carlotta and there are other fine performances from Andrew Rivera as her husband, Sean Paul Jenkinson as the count also in love with Christine and Tom Murphy as outgoing theatre manager Carriere. They are all supported by a fine ensemble.

I adored MD Aaron Clingham’s arrangements for piano, woodwind and strings and the idea of atmospheric ‘incidental’ music is a very good one. American Dawn Kalani Cowle (it’s a proper United Nations up there in Walthamstow) does a fine job of staging this in such a small space, with clever use of a red curtain across the whole space.

I thought One Touch of Venus was a turning point for this venue, and I think this proves it. Anyone interested in musical theatre should be heading to Walthamstow right now. No excuses.

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