27 November 2006

Titanic! – West Wickham Operatic Society, Churchill Theatre Bromley – Saturday 25th November 2006

I enjoyed this, I really, really did! I was expecting quite a lot and WWOS didn’t disappoint me. In fact, I got more pleasure out of this than I have from a lot of professional productions in the West End recently. Sure, there was the odd little thing which marked this out as an amateur production, but in the main it was very well presented and I am glad that WWOS took a risk to present what must be a difficult show to market given that all amateur productions these days must be box-office led.

In retrospect, some of the direction was perhaps rather uninspired and flat (showing that directing a show and playing a principal part in it at the same time is really not to be recommended), and there were several missed opportunities as regards choreography. The lovely waltz “Autumn” which is being played as the ship approaches its fatal collision with the iceberg cried out for a stage full of couples waltzing their way towards disaster, which would have pointed up nicely the arrogance of the upper classes on board. The First Class Dining Room scene looked cramped on stage, with many of the diners at the Captain’s Table having their backs to the audience. I know that the director must have been going for realism at this point, but artistic licence in these situations is allowed, and it would have been much easier for the audience to hear the conversations taking place had the cast been arranged around three sides of the table.

I also have a couple of gripes over some of the costumes. For a show so firmly set in its period (1912), there were an awful lot of costumes from the 1930s – several of the ladies in the chorus were wearing clothes in a style which just wouldn’t have existed in 1912. Many evening gowns were also far too modern. These errors were made worse by the appearance of many of the female cast in silk pajamas in Act 2, when they should all have been wearing long nightdresses. There was at least one chorus lady wearing a costume which was identifiably from “HMS Pinafore”. I spotted several modern suitcases being taken aboard when they should all have been period leather ones.

However, these are minor gripes. The chorus were well drilled, animated and interested in what was going on around them at all times. They were, however, not really helped by the sound imbalance caused by miking all the principals; on many occasions choruses which should have filled the theatre with sound were completely overshadowed and drowned out by the principals singing at the front of the stage. This was a real shame as the show contains a lot of opportunities for the chorus to really shine. Chorus discipline was excellent though and when they were really given their head, the sound was wonderful.

In general, scenery was fairly sparse (probably because the show demands so many quick changes of scene) but effective. The one scene where complete realism was attempted (the First Class Dining Room) looked a little awkward and was spoiled by the chandelier hanging completely off kilter.

Of the principals, Terry Gauntless and Pauline Gregoire take the honours as Isidor and Ida Strauss – they brought true poignancy to all their scenes and their song in Act 2, in which they reflect on a long and happy married life together as the final lifeboat floats away was almost unbearable – and I mean that in a complimentary sense. I found Jonathan French a little wooden as Captain Smith, but I suppose that was in character. However, had he trimmed his beard slightly, it would have helped his diction somewhat. David Hodgson was completely unable to sustain his notes as First Officer Murdoch and was embarrassingly flat on occasion. Luke Birchenough as the Lookout was excellent – fresh voiced and clear. Paul Mount was brilliant as Steward Edges and, although the singing required of him was sometimes out of his range, I feel his acting abilities overcame any of these shortcomings. Nat Hook displayed an impressive pair of biceps as the Stoker, and was excellent throughout his long and difficult solo (so can be excused for sounding somewhat vocally tired by the end of it). Bob Faint, as Major Butt, was obviously doing his best “Lionel Jeffries in Chitty Bang Bang” impression all night and I found this rather wearing, although this may well have been the fault of the script rather than the actor. Down in Second Class, Amanda Farrant was slightly over the top as Alice Beane (although cannot be faulted on her singing – especially the horrendously difficult “Embarkation” section in which she identifies many of the First Class passengers) but Chris Arden was vocally out of his depth as her long suffering husband. In Steerage, the honours were taken by Nicola Henderson as Kate McGowan – she had an amazing voice and wasn’t afraid to put it to good use when it was needed.

Despite my criticisms, I really enjoyed the entire evening aboard Titanic and am glad to have seen such a good production of this very rarely seen show.

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