Perrins Hall has been a splendid temporary home for RGS Drama productions in the last few years. This week witnessed another magical metamorphosis, as the venerable hall was transformed into Belle Époque Paris for The Phantom of the Opera.
This was a wonderful send-off before the Drama department settles into its new home in the soon-to-be-completed Performing Arts Centre. In many ways, this was the most splendid, sumptuous and ambitious performance we have seen in Perrins and we were treated to a truly magnificent evening. The challenges and complexities of this musical are very demanding, even for professional actors and musicians, but a very talented and gifted RGS cast triumphed in spectacular style.
Heini Hughes, as Carlotta (the petulant prima donna ousted by Christine), gave a performance full of operatic tantrums and waspish jealousy. She soared her way through the octaves with consummate, effortless ease. Heini was complemented wonderfully by the absurdly ridiculous Ubaldo, played by Ed Kirby. His rakish and bawdy caricature was enacted with great gusto and he had audiences chuckling at his hugely enjoyable portrayal.
One of the evening’s most enjoyable scenes came from Alex Edwards and James Phillips. Their comic duets (often full of tricky, tongue-twisting rhymes) were handled with great comic bravura. ‘JP’ and Alex have been stalwarts of many RGS productions and their strong performance was a fitting way to say farewell.
On an evening of such magnificent singing and musicianship, there were highlights in almost every scene. Yet, it was noticeable that the standard of ensemble singing stood out. There was real conviction and character in each and every chorus. This is a rich period for choral singing at RGS and there were moments when the chorus would not have sounded out of place on a professional stage, in particular the Masquerade piece. The orchestra beautifully accompanied and guided these moments and, with a challenging score, it was impressive to see many RGS pupils playing in the band, including some from the Lower School. The Music of the Night was a standout piece. The orchestra, under the baton, of Mr Hamilton, fully met the challenge of Lloyd-Webber’s rich and complex score, one packed with musical variety: lyric beauty, menace and comic brashness – with these elements often following in rapid succession. None of this was too much for an exceptional group of players and the advantage of using Perrins Hall was that the full power of the School’s organ, played by former pupil Ellie Morgan, could be unleashed.
And now, to what must be one of the all-time RGS musical highlights. Beth Rabjohn, undoubtedly gave us once of the most memorable assured and magical performances there has perhaps ever been at RGS. This might sound like hyperbole, but it is justified. It is one thing to sing this demanding part with such accuracy and assurance; it is another to do so with such thoughtful characterisation and vocal maturity. Everything she did (even with a damaged foot!) was breath-takingly good. To pick out highlights seems unfair but her duet with Ella Cleary as Meg Giry was particularly impressive, as was the tenderness and pathos of her final trio with the Phantom and Raoul, played by Benedict Lowe. The drama of this final struggle between the rivals for Christine was sung with such tormented passion by all three singers, their voices weaving in and out of each other with such poignancy and pathos. It was a remarkable ending.
If that was not enough, Bertie Pryke’s anguished portrayal of the Phantom was palpable from the beginning and his dominance and control over Christine worked beautifully against the innocent and pure portrayal by Beth. When alone on stage, Bertie demonstrated the Phantom’s despondent and desperate nature, allowing his voice to rise to moving crescendos at his most tortured moments. The audience were clearly moved by these episodes as we glimpsed the more vulnerable side to this character.
Two other notable performances in a stellar line up included Grace Moseley’s stern chorus mistress Madame Giry, where she also successfully demonstrated great tenderness towards her charge. George Garrity’s Monsier Leferre was performed with aplomb and his command of the stage was very obvious.
Behind the scenes, Abigail Gill’s leadership and dedication must be praised: the role as Stage Manager is not always an easy one and Abigail demonstrated her ability to manage a large group of students with great skill and faultless timing. The scene changes were often very dramatic and intricate, most notably Christine’s entrance on the gondola guided by the Gothic Crew Creatures Mia Shaw and Cameron Taylor. These moments exemplified the hard work that goes on in order to achieve such magical effects. The imaginative panache of these scenes was there for all to see, and special credit should be given to all the Stage Crew.
The quality of make-up, hair and costume matched the performances on stage. The sumptuous colours and fabrics of the opera house attire really did play a huge part in the visual vibrancy of the performance and helped transport the audiences to the opulent work of a Parisian opera house.
In the beautifully designed programme, Mrs Witcomb notes the ‘huge challenge’ the students faced in tackling this piece and it is safe to say that every pupil wowed and stunned in their individual performances. The talent exhibited by the Senior School students is nothing short of extraordinary and it is a testament to the Creative Arts staff and students that a performance such as this was performed with such professionalism. As a Director, Mrs Witcomb has triumphed.
As a piece that combined so many elements – wonderful singing, impressive musicianship, superb dancing and both tragic and comic acting – this was an extraordinary spectacle, and a fitting farewell to Perrins Hall. Looking forward, with the new Performing Arts Centre due to open soon, clearly Music and Drama at RGS has a very special future ahead.
Laura Webb and Nick Phillips