PURE PLEASURE AT HER MAJESTY’S
It seemed worth the money – these were not press tickets – to check out how good old Fanty is getting on after 36 years at Her Majesty’s Theatre down the Haymarket. It’s survived the Covid interruption, worked its way through a phantasmagorical procession of Phantoms and Christines since Crawford and Brightman, and has had to pare its orchestra down from 27 to 14. How would it feel? I remember seeing Lloyd-Webber’s CATS onstage in its last London days, and a terrible disappointing sense of its weariness. Hard to pin down why – with good talent, decent audience and the classic Gillian Lynne choreography – but it felt stale, hopeless. I feared the same. A decline into exhausted tourist-fodder.
But no: Phantom is fresh as a daisy, its gorgeously over-the-top staging as hilarious and glorious as ever: a gilt proscenium-within-the-proscenium complete with boxes, a nostalgic opening at the auction with the great chandelier draped in sacking, then a flashing reveal of a grand cod-opera rehearsal complete with stern ballet mistress and roll-on elephant onto which the heroic tenor struggles to climb. Honour to the new resident and associate directors: the cast give the impression of having a ball, and possibly even enjoying the extreme costumes (I gasp at the thought of the wardrobe team). And our latest Phantom is Killian Donnelly, back for a second go, or third, given that he has been Raoul as well.
He’s splendid: wide gorgeous vocal range, swashbuckling authority, just the chap you need to punt you through a subterranean lake studded with giant candelabras, and pop up dramatically, whether from a giant winged horse’s head on the opera roof or looming on a tomb. Lucy St Louis is a properly charming Christine, too (last saw her as Diana Ross). The ensemble are as tight and delighted and delightful as on any first night, and as a sober ROH regular I had forgotten the pleasure of the three bursts of grand-opera pastiche. This time that enjoyment was inflated further afterwards by the amusement of getting online to read reading anguished real-opera-buff commentaries on what their bete- noir Lloyd-Webber got, in their opinion, wrong.
I also realized, in the first song “think of me”, exactly where Victoria Wood must have got the inspiration for the rehearsal scene in her Bessie Bunter The Musical sketch…the one with the line about Anthony Eden..
It was a family outing, the show chosen because some 25 years ago, over 5 years into Phantom’s epic run, I took a posse of 11-year-old girls to it for (we think) my daughter’s birthday. I had encountered the show first when it opened and Cameron Mackintosh came on MIDWEEK (radio 4). I remember saying to him, as a humble non-affluent punter, “Gosh I wish I was a theatre-angel, an investor”. Not just because it was obviously going to run, but because it would be fun to be involved in something so gloriously preposterous, so drenched in the romance of bygone theatre and opera and staged with éclat, sentiment, and jokes about the business. And a collapsing chandelier… O, how many times has that thing been up and down, skimming the heads of row F? Honour to three and a half decades of technical crews
Anyway, the affection years ago was increased because when my rabble of little girls shot out chattering at the end via the merchandise stall, the cry that went up was not for T shirts or badges but an amazed, delighted “Look, Mum, you can buy the SCORE!” Suddenly all those music lesson fees felt worth it. Which is yet another reason I won’t hear a word against dear Fanty, not now, not ever. The faint tooting of “Angel of Music” on many recorders afterwards is alone a justification. God bless ALW, I say.