The “Celebrity” Theatre

Many RHUL students choose to take advantage of some of the excellent offers available to students to watch West End shows. With London’s theatres offering day seats and student tickets for between £5 -£30, it’s definitely something that’s both worthwhile and affordable.  I myself have been somewhat overindulgent with these offers this summer (much to the detriment of my bank balance). It strikes me that, despite there being a huge amount of talent on display in some genuinely brilliant shows, London’s West End can also offer a great deal of mediocrity, particularly in the form of C-list celebrities being cast in leading roles purely to sell tickets.

After much anticipation and some excellent marketing and hype from its producers Shrek: The Musical opened at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in June. Yes, I know what you’re thinking ‘Shrek?! They’ve made a musical of Shrek? Why?’ but in all honestly, it is genuinely a highly entertaining show with, for the most part, a great score. ‘Starring’ (I use that term in the loosest possible sense) are theatre regular Nigel Lindsay as Shrek, Nigel Harman (yes, Dennis Rickman from Eastenders) as Lord Farquad, media jack-of-all-trades Richard Blackwood as Donkey and B.G.T.’s very own Amanda Holden as Princess Fiona. I had mixed feelings when I entered the theatre. Having watched clips of the West End production online and  heard (played on repeat whilst dancing round my living room) the Original Broadway Cast recording of the show I wasn’t holding out a great deal of hope for the UK’s offerings. I was, on the whole, correct.

Nigel Harman, performing the entire show on his knees, steals the show (it’s a shame it wasn’t Farquad: The Musical – I’ll copyright that idea before any hideous sequels appear). As for the other ‘leads’, they are, ultimately, a let-down. It is not that they cannot sing or dance (with the exception of Richard Blackwood whose numbers as Donkey have all mysteriously been cut to ‘save time’) but that all three are, at best, mediocre. Their lacklustre performances are exposed even more so by the energy, strength and pure talent that exudes from the 20 strong chorus, each of whom deserved a leading role in their own right (most of all Holden’s understudy Alice Fearn, whose vocal and acting abilities wiped the floor with Holden’s respective offerings). The review from The Times said that ‘Amanda Holden really has got Talent’ (a hilariously original and witty pun)but if this is the case, she failed to demonstrate it to me.

Don’t get me wrong, the show, as a whole, is brilliant. It’s witty, touching and well delivered. The music is fresh and exciting and visually it’s exquisite. Its theatricality is undoubtedly one of its greatest strengths. But it is a sad and sorry situation when members of the chorus and understudies far, far, FAR outshine their leading actors. The clue’s in the name; they are supposed to lead the show, not be carried along by an elaborate production and talented supporting cast.

In July, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for Lend Me a Tenor; a new musical based on Ken Ludwig’s play of the same name. Hailed by the press as a show that ‘deserve[d] to run and run…’ it was elegant, hilarious and genuinely one of the best nights at the theatre I have had in a long time and thoroughly deserved that accolade. This production was filled with some of the finest talent London’s West End has to offer yet sadly, it closed less than two months into its run. A new play or musical doesn’t seem to stand a chance when faced with the ‘big star’ attractions that Shrek claims to offer. The past few months have seen several brilliant new plays and musicals close because audiences are drawn to flashy advertising and big names (big money). What is so bitterly frustrating about this is that nine times out of ten, the ‘Star performer’ falls far short of their non-celebrity counterparts. It shouldn’t be a situation where I actively seek/hope to watch an understudy’s performance.

So, see this article as a plea from me; if you decide to go and see a West End show (which you definitely should!) please at least consider going to something new, something that perhaps isn’t a huge name yet and isn’t starring so-and-so from Hollyoaks, The X Factor or The Only Way is Essex. I honestly believe that you will be in for a substantially better theatrical experience. If not, then I guess we’ll have to accept that we’re doomed to see such wonders as Jodie Marsh playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady or Justin Lee Collins in Rock of Ages (that one’s actually happening…) for the foreseeable future!

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