“Something fantastic will happen tonight”...
For most of the Caamora Theatre Company, the theatrical adventure of 'Alchemy' began long before the final production week at the Cheltenham Playhouse Theatre in September, 2013. The actors and actresses, the chorus and the band had attended regular rehearsals for almost a year before they eventually appeared under the spotlights on the Playhouse stage. I can confirm with certainty that long weeks of hard work paid off, and that the final result must have delighted even the most demanding connoisseur of thespian art.
If the UK premiere of Clive Nolan's previous musical, 'SHE', performed at the Cheltenham Playhouse in February 2012, could be justly considered enchanting, solid and professional, the Cheltenham production of 'Alchemy' exceeded its predecessor with the magnitude of the directorial vision as well as the actors' renditions. With more than 50 people in the production, the 4 shows (including two sell-out performances) provided the viewers with over two hours of top class entertainment.
I could not start this review with the name of anyone else but the writer, composer, choreographer (!) and actor cast in the role of the eminent Samuel King, Maestro Clive Nolan. The man of many talents, acclaimed rock keyboardist, and singer once again surprised us with his rendition of the role of Professor King which, compared to the Katowice Concert version in February, was much more dynamic. In Cheltenham, Clive succeeded in conveying the complexity and multidimensionality of the character in its entirety. Bravo to the subtle references to such masterpieces of musical theatre like 'Oliver' or 'Les Miserables'! Thanks to the most intelligent development of the character, Professor King was as credible, convincing and as noble as Jean Valjean and at times as cunning and comical as Fagin. Evidently, Clive must have enjoyed both the character himself as well as the process of creating King's theatrical impersonation. Hopefully, we will see Clive in many more theatre productions to come! What an exceptional talent!
Standing ovations go to the Caamora Theatre Company Band featuring 4 faithful rock companions of Clive: Mark Westwood, Scott Higham, Claudio Momberg and Kylan Amos! Fortunately, this year, the audience had more chance to actually see the musicians situated in front of the stage in an orchestra pit. And if anyone wished for a more devoted group of professional musicians, they could not find a better ensemble! Mark, Scott, Claudio and Kylan, show after show, delighted the audience and the whole Company with flawless performances, which echoed in the mind and lingered in memory long time after the curtain went down. Classic!
Special recognition should also go to the Chorus. More than 25 choristers performing various roles and numerous little scenes throughout the whole show transferred us right into the heart of Victorian London. Some of the most spectacular set pieces like 'Quaternary Plan', 'Highgate' and 'The Ritual' masterly performed by the chorus members provided the story with background, commentary and humour. A hangman, a drunk, the policemen, the beggars at the St. Lazarus Refuge, the gang of mercenaries, Jagman's disciples and many more little roles added flavour and historical credibility to the plot of the story. A bow towards Dorothy Frances, the Choir Master, for her hard work and for turning the chorus parts into a symphony of voices! Well done, everyone!
The cast of the Cheltenham shows consisted of a combination of singers known from the rock and progressive rock British scene and the Gloucestershire theatre world. Such intriguing combinations resulted in several superb duets, trios and quartets performed with a mixture of rock'n'roll spark and classical purism. It is enough to recall beautiful Agnieszka Swita with her intrinsic rock vibe, remembered so well from 'SHE'. Even though Amelia Darvas is a much tamer character, Agnieszka's angry lament in 'One for the Noose', the terror of 'Streetfight' and haughty confrontation in 'The Warning' were some of the most memorable performances of the show. Victoria Bolley contributed a lot to the fury of the female performances with her interpretation of the character of Eva Bonaduce, a fighter and a protector of Professor King. It was a pure delight to see this dainty little woman transform into a vamp and bad news to anyone who's not on her side. Another excellent performance! The roles of both ladies, however, included much softer parts too, which provided an opportunity to experience the whole range of their possibilities. Among the highlights of the show were two ballads: Agnieszka's 'The Girl I Was' and Victoria's soaring soprano singing in the aria 'Share This Dream'. The long and loud applause spoke for itself.
Two other principal actresses, Verity Smith (Mrs. Muncey) and Soheila Clifford (Jessamine), come from an utterly different musical background. The strong blues voice of Verity filled the theatre with the power of a volcano in her duet with Christopher Longman in 'Unwelcome Guest' – one of the most up-tempo Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter song. An impressive acting performance too! Soheila, whose role was received with love and admiration in Poland earlier this year proved her credibility once more, and Jessamine's solo 'Desperate Days' was rewarded with equal enthusiasm from the audience at the Cheltenham shows. Great job, ladies!
The man watching over the preparations for the Cheltenham production with an inexhaustible energy during the long months preceding the shows was director and a principal romantic lead, David Clifford. In his delightful creation of William Gardelle, he succeeded in conveying the vast range of dimensions of the character. The petty crook and thief transformed right before our eyes into a charming profound lover capable of romantic affection, hate and grief; a character convincing enough to be believed, and make the audience share his fate with compassion and empathy. David's rendition of 'Amelia', one of the most touching love songs in the musical, was truly breathtaking, as was Amelia's dying scene, in which the broken hopes, disbelief and despair of both William and Amelia were almost tangible. We definitely want more!
What would a play be without a proper villain? And the one created by Andy Sears in Cheltenham deserves an honourable place in the pantheon of the most loveable and sinister villains of theatre history! Lord Henry Jagman, as performed by Sears, crept into the hearts of the audience with a most perplexing mixture of admiration and repugnance. Whenever Sears appeared on stage the scene turned into a celebration of diabolic evilness in the best possible taste, which peaked in Jagman's morality code declarative solo 'The End Justifies the Means'. Great job, Mr. Sears! And definitely a highlight!
However, as in every classic play, a villain must be punished. Chris Lewis was the man to do it. Cast in the role of the 200-year-old alchemist, Thomas Anzeray, Lewis sang what is probably the heaviest rock song in the musical, 'Anzeray Speaks'. Having appeared through the gateway in clouds of smoke, radiant in his white robe, his strong and unique voice filled the room with great power and unearthliness. Quite frightening! The acting skills of Lewis did not escape anyone's notice and the scene of Jagman's damnation (together with Sears' masterly stunt-act of literally throwing himself through the air!) was a masterpiece and one of the most impressive moments in the story. In addition, the sombre aspect of the chorus lent a deliciously dark atmosphere to the proceedings. Short, but a very powerful performance from Mr. Lewis. Hopefully we will see more of him in Nolan's next musical!
Three more artists: Christopher Longman (Ben Greaves), Ross Andrews (Captain Farrell) and Paul Blower (Milosh), added more colours to the shows in three smaller principal roles. It is worth noting that Chris Longman, apart from skilfully developing the role of Jagman’s iniquitous lackey Greaves, also co-directed the Cheltenham shows. Longman deserves praise and a round of applause for both these roles. Milosh, a mercenary with a soul and the countenance of a pirate, was performed with charm and grace by Paul Blower, whose appearance on stage surrounded by his gang of followers, brought a moment of sheer visual pleasure. 'Ambush' sounded and looked enjoyable. Hats off to the artists, the choreographer and the costume designers! 'Burial at Sea' introduced one more character to the musical, Captain Joseph Farrell, performed by Ross Andrews. A very short role, but not the easiest one. Andrews certainly did justice to the sea Captain and his deep baritone voice combined with his acting skills created a memorable character.
To sum up, despite some minor technical issues, 'Alchemy' in Cheltenham provided the multinational audience with entertainment on the highest level. Once more, my praises go to everyone involved: the author and composer, the actors, the chorus, the directors, the band and indeed the whole production team. The costumes (created by Natalie Barnett, Beth Turner, and Monica Carter), the scenery (by Mike Barwick) and the choreography was on a par with many of London’s theatrical shows, which is impressive when considering the limited budget of the production. There was no end to cheering and applause, with the actors receiving three curtain calls on the final night. The event was crowned by the first ever presentation of a newly created award, the MLWZ Golden Lexicon Award 2013 for Outstanding Achievements in Music, which was handed to Clive Nolan by Artur Chachlowski for the musical 'Alchemy'. After such an emotional event, and with such an accumulation of talent, the 'Alchemy' experience will certainly be remembered as one of the most pleasurable events of the year. Mr. Nolan, I wholeheartedly hope “there's more…” – hopefully in the West End!
Review by Magdalena Grabias
Photos by Neil Palfreyman