“The Fire and the Quest 2”
1-2 September 2017
Music and Lyrics by Clive Nolan
Directed by Ian Baldwin
On the first weekend of September the Cheltenham Playhouse saw the return of the composer, lyricist, and symphonic rock legend Clive Nolan (Arena, Pendragon) and his Caamora Theatre Company. The event, to celebrate the Nolan musicals, consisted of three shows: “Alchemy”, an acoustic concert “Beyond the Veil”, and the premiere of Nolan's most recent piece, “King’s Ransom”.
After its concert premiere in Poland in 2013, “Alchemy” debuted half a year later as a theatre production at the Cheltenham Playhouse, and subsequently was shaped into a cleverly concise production suitable for both big and small venues by the talented Cheltenham director Ian Baldwin. The show was performed over a week in the London off-West End in 2014. The 2017 version turned out to be a revived version freshened by the presence of a few new cast members.
The plot unwinds within the realm of the “Alchemy universe”. Set in the Victorian era, the musical presents a tale of adventure, love and mystery with elements of the ghostly and the supernatural. Professor Samuel King (Clive Nolan) embarks on a quest in search of artefacts left behind by the alchemist, Thomas Anzeray (Chris Lewis), which in the hands of King's overambitious and power-greedy adversary, Lord Henry Jagman (played by the excellent and ever-entertaining Andy Sears), might lead to disastrous consequences resulting in distorting the balance between the living and the dead.
The ever-captivating plot was once more presented with vigour and vitality by the Caamora Theatre cast. Nolan's King stood firm and convincing with the sense of respect and tenacious authority against Sears' charismatic portrayal of the ultimate baddie. Joining the British cast of “Alchemy” for the first time were the leading ladies: the outstanding Liverpool-born soprano Gemma Ashley in the role of Eva Bonaduce, and the Norwegian actress and singer Elisabeth Syrdahl Ellingsen as Amelia Darvas. Ellingsen, had, in May 2017, starred in the role of Amelia in the Caamora Norway costumed concert production of the musical performed over two weeks in Norway. She now brought a new dimension to the stage interpretation of the character, sporting her acting and vocal talent with great conviction against Amelia's romantic interest, William Gardelle, performed by the multitalented Robbie Gardner. Special mention must go to the Cheltenham artists Verity White (Pendragon) and Ross Andrews (both in double roles) with their masterly rendition of “The Unwelcome Guest” duet, as well as the rock veteran, Chris Lewis, whose big finale rendition of the alchemist's anthem “Anzeray Speaks” resulted in fervent applause from the multinational audience gathered at the tightly packed venue.
The second day of the mini festival started with an early afternoon acoustic concert hosted in a jovial cabaret-like style by Clive Nolan himself. A gathering of singers from all over the world, including England, Wales, Italy, Poland, Norway, Uruguay, Argentina and more, performed the songs from the vast rock and musical repertoire of Nolan, accompanied by his long-time collaborators known from Arena, Pendragon and other bands, the instrumentalists: Mark Westwood (guitar), Scott Higham (cajon), Kylan Amos (bass) and Morten Clason (flute).
However, it was Saturday evening and the world premiere of Nolan's third musical that was the most anticipated part of the event.
The plot of “King's Ransom” takes place two years after the events of “Alchemy”. Returning are Professor King and his friends Eva (Gemma Ashley) and William (Jamie Anderson) to once more save the country, which sinks fast into the chasm of political intrigue and the evil plotting of the power-driven Colonel Luther Scovil (Christopher Longman). The life of the Prime Minister is in grave danger and only King and his knowledge of unearthly solutions can salvage the country and prevent disaster.
It soon became obvious that “King's Ransom” is musically superior to both Nolan's previous musicals (“She” and “Alchemy”), and the stage production, directed again by Ian Baldwin, turned out to be a triumphant piece of musical theatre. Regardless of the occasional heavier instrumental and vocal parts (only proper to Nolan's rock inclinations), “King’s Ransom” stayed safely within the frames of the ‘musical’ genre. The cast of 13 principles lived up to the bigger challenge that the show presented. Nolan, despite battling a sore throat, shone with skills and authority in the role of his alter ego, Professor King. Ashley once more stunned the audience with her soaring soprano parts: the arias “Solitary Man” and “Harm's Way”, the retort “Defiant”. The Nolan-Ashley love duet “Silent Words”, complemented by the inspired light show from lighting designer, Alec Morris, was certainly one of the highlights of the show.
Verity White as Josephine Kendrick, and Caamora’s newest member, Jamie Anderson as William Gardelle, gave a series of enchanting performances culminating in the duet “Dare to be Happy”, which was proclaimed by the Gloucestershire Echo as “beauty incarnate”. Next to King and his companions, fighting on the “good side”, were the dwellers of Under London portrayed by the Caamora Chorus members, who must be congratulated for their wonderful abundance of colourful characters. They were led by the charismatic Chris Lewis in the role of Edwin Deeks. If Lewis' performance of Thomas Anzeray the night before left the spectator with the hunger for more, “King's Ransom” provided the opportunity to indulge in the depths of his extraordinary rock voice. Worth mentioning is his authoritative “Salvation Has a Name” as well as the mesmerising Lewis-Longman-Nolan trio “Set for the Task”.
The musical would not be complete without villains. Chris Longman as Colonel Scovil, Joy-Amy Wigman as the treacherous Helena Blake, and Natalie Barnett (in the non-singing role of Roza the assassin), gave a sterling vocal and visual performance transferring the audience into the realm of genuine evil in “Eyes of the Basilisk” or through the visual drama unfolding during “The Summoning”.
As opposed to its two predecessors, this show included a lot of comedy, much of which must be credited to the vision of the director. Baldwin's comic genius was displayed in his inventive adaptations of Nolan's humour-filled pieces, including coming to life of the wax figures at Madame Tussauds exhibition, the ghost sequences, and the set pieces featuring the entire cast during the Covent Garden opening scene, and Hyde Park later on (special mention goes to the chorus master Ross Andrews for his most enjoyable performances). Cast as the ghostly apparition of Captain Fergus Maunder, Baldwin and his interactions with the joyously comic character of the unwilling psychic, Tom Worthy, masterfully played by Robbie Gardner, were rewarded with the waves of mirth from the audience.
All in all, the premiere of “King's Ransom” proved to be an exhilarating, vibrant show enriched by Natalie Barnett's lavish and colourful costumes, simple but imaginative scenery, as well as great performances and memorable songs. The upbeat “Stand Fast” and “Nostalgia” made the audience join together in a merry sing along during the show and resulted in the standing ovations and the unceasing applause long after the songs ended. Even though the weekend was not devoid of slight glitches - sound distortions or here-and-there ‘altered’ lyrics, the event was a huge success and a testimony to the undeniable creative genius of Nolan’s musicals and Baldwin’s directing.
A review by Magdalena Grabias (Published in Classic Rock Society, Issue 223 January/February 2018)
Photos by Neil Palfreyman