Clive Nolan has for 20 years been one of the leading lights in symphonic prog through being the regular keyboards player with major bands including Pendragon, Arena, Shadowland and Caamora. In 2005, he added to his impressive canon of work by composing his first musical 'She' which was subsequently staged in Holland, the UK, Poland and surprisingly, Bolivia.
However, 'Alchemy' is a completely original piece penned by Nolan, a Victorian Steampunk musical melodrama set in 1842 which has all the essential ingredients for a rattling good yarn - adventure, love and passion, betrayal and revenge, and the ever present quest for power.
Central to the plot is Professor Samuel King played by Nolan who sets off to find three hidden artefacts left behind by alchemist, Thomas Anzeray. But the villain of the piece Lord Jagman (Andy Sears), who thinks King is dead, is also off in pursuit of the artefacts, firstly by tricking mystery girl Amelia Darvas, played by Caamora Theatre Company star Agnieszka Swita. After being double-crossed Amelia finds herself sentenced to a public execution but is saved by King and his friends.
After that, it is a race against time between King and Jagman to get their hands on the artefacts and perform a ritual to open the door between life and death.
The music is as dramatic as the plot but stays well within the confines of recognised rock opera with lots of over the top performances, notably by Sears who revels in his wicked, wicked ways. Just listen to 'The Ends Justifies The Means' to get a cut of his evil jib.
From the opening prologue, Nolan's compositions never let up in their grand guignol style or give you chance to pause for breath. There are shades of 'The Phantom Of The Opera' at certain junctures but, overall, 'Alchemy' has a magic all of its own.
Among the choicest tracks 'One For The Noose' has a stately severity about it with its sedate drum beats and restrained chorus lines, and Nolan reveals himself a singer and actor of exceptional ability, especially on 'King Explains' and 'Quaternary Plan', the latter being a jolly romp.
'Highgate' is another chance for Sears to unleash his devilry and Swita her assertiveness to the background of some wonderful lush instrumentation, including a gypsy fiddle depicting some revelry as the Hellfire Club assembles in the cemetery.
The romantic duos between Swita and her beau William Gardelle, played by Red Jasper's David Clifford, one of 'She''s cast members, who is also blessed with a fine theatrical voice, are particularly effective especially on 'Sanctuary' where there is real power and feeling in their vocal chemistry.
The cast also includes Damian Wilson and Tracy Hitchings of Landmarq in small cameo roles, along with former IQ singer Paul Menel and Nolan's Arena bandmate Paul Manzi.
It is one of those albums which demands close attention throughout and credit should go to Nolan for unleashing his inner Lord Lloyd-Webber for the composition and painstaking attention to detail which has gone into the making of this enjoyable slice of Victorian hokum. Catch the cast performing it live next month at Cheltenham Playhouse on September 5, 6 and 7 with an all-star cast. It should be quite an occasion!
Review by Alison Henderson, Background Magazine
Photos by Natalia Tuszyńska, Kara Rokita Kamil Kowalski