Being the musical fanatic that I am, and having never had the opportunity to see The Phantom of the Opera before, I can admit that expectations were high for Footlights’ production at the Northcott Theatre. With such a huge venue and an extensive budget surpassing other student shows that have taken place this university year, the audience was promised big things. Rowan Keith and I were two excited voices in the buzz of the crowd as we waited for the iconic Phantom music to start the night. Celebrating their 30th year with such an iconic production could have been a big risk, but I have to say Footlights effortlessly pulled it off.
Phantom was a musical to remember. My love of musicals was brought about by my parents’ own interest in West End shows; I fondly remember one family holiday in London a few years ago where we (quite impressively) managed to squeeze five shows into three days, four of which were musicals. It was one of the most amazing holidays, and the standard of productions made for an immersive and breath-taking experience. I don’t know if it was partially due to the novelty of a production that I haven’t seen before at the West End, but Footlights’ rendition of The Phantom of the Opera had similar effects on me. Over the course of the evening, I found myself being one of many moved to laughter, pity, awe and I have to admit, even a few quickly wiped away tears at the very end as society once again rejected the ‘monstrous’ Phantom. The singing, dancing and acting were all executed almost seamlessly, with the addition of a live 22 piece band giving the performance the real atmosphere and sound of a West End show. Although a few technical difficulties with microphones and feedback occurred every now and again, the quality of the singing was definitely not hindered by this and the actors carried on without hesitation, brilliantly exhibiting their “the show must go on” mentality. The cast of 30 interacted fluidly, with particularly comic performances by theatre owners Firmin and Andre, played by David Ballard and Joey Saunders, and a short but funny cameo by their predecessor, Andy Sharpe.
One of the most captivating parts of the show had to be the love-triangle storyline between the main characters, which was emotionally portrayed by the performances of Beth Cowley as opera-singer Christine (see right), Fred Wheadon playing her childhood friend and lover, Raoul, and Eoin McAndrew as the Phantom himself (see right). With such a challenging score, a few notes were at the edge of the actors’ ranges, yet they appeared confident in their delivery producing particularly beautiful renditions of ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’; Beth’s voice deserves a particular mention, flawlessly hitting the famous high notes of Christine and captivating the audience. The acting made it an easy storyline to follow, with the production being as much a spectacle with its special effects, beautiful costumes and ballet dancing, as a story of love, music and society. The spectacle was enhanced by the Inception-like concept of a show within a show, with exuberant characters like Carlotta (Harriet Doyle), the company’s self-obsessed prima donna with an outstanding voice, helping to add to the larger than life drama of the script. In terms of staging, most notably there was a stone angel cleverly arranged to overlook the stage throughout the performance which emphasised Christine’s “angel of the night”, the Phantom, as an omniscient presence who was always watching Christine and the other cast members. Through the use of a false mirror, the Phantom could suddenly appear whenever he desired (or more accurately, whenever it was scripted); it’s easy to see how the special effects played a large part in the success of the performance.
Although some critics believe The Phantom of the Opera to be outdated and irrelevant to today, the charm of the performance appears to be everlasting, in Exeter in any case; when the curtain came down, most of the crowd gave a standing ovation, Rowan and myself included. It was a truly captivating performance by ensemble and leads alike. With such a successful show this term, expectations for future shows are now even higher than ever; I can’t wait to see how Footlights plan to top this.