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July 17 2016, Exit Stage Left Reviews The David Beach Competition

Dogfightdogfight

Exit Stage Left

The Rondo Theatre, Bath

16th July 2016

 

For me Exit Stage Left epitomise the very best of amateur, small-venue musical theatre. Every summer production is an event to eagerly anticipate: Each time I travel to the bijou Rondo theatre I simply know that charming, force-of-nature Director Alison McCausland’s obsessive attention-to-detail and directorial precision, combined with the myriad talent of the group’s membership will produce something good. This summer’s offering Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dogfight is taken from the group’s usual ‘off-Broadway’ hunting ground. It features melodic and pleasing tunes and a fairly simple storyline with a bittersweet feel. On first examination the show looks to be not a terribly ‘easy sing’ and requiring some good acting skills and ensemble playing: a good match to challenge the group whilst remaining easily accessible to most audiences.

The pre-show state of the small stage was neat and attractive, reflecting Becca Long’s deceptively simple yet very practical design: two slightly raised platforms up stage right and left, covered in black and white tiles with steps and stairs leading from the stage to the raised levels; large, colorful, lit signs on the back wall variously proclaiming ‘Diner’, ‘Tattoos’, ‘Exit’ etc– the various levels giving an immediate visual interest.

The first few scenes of any show are, of course vital in establishing, for the audience, many things: not least ‘is it any good?’. For ESL only the opening number was required: Hannah Long (playing, as we would shortly discover, Rose Fenny) sitting quietly on the stairs down-stage left with a guitar, singing the lovely Prelude: Take Me Back. Many things were immediately obvious: Hannah’s gorgeous voice and presence, the excellence of the orchestra under first-time Conductor and Musical Director Lauren Davies and, as the company joined the number, the high quality of singing and energy from every member. Thus was the audience’s first question answered.

The main narrative of the show is structured around the burgeoning relationship between newly trained and off-to-Vietnam US Marine Eddie Birdlace played by Matthew Graham and Hannah Long’s character Rose Fenny. Rose is a slightly dowdy, idealistic young woman, working as a waitress in her Mom’s (Jessica Withers) diner. In juxtaposition to the blossoming romance are the unpleasant shenanigans of Eddie’s fellow marines as they spend their last night on home soil before going to war.

The believability of the ‘band-of-brothers’ relationship amongst the young marines is an essential part of ‘selling’ the story to the audience. This was achieved spectacularly well. I can only assume that the rehearsal period, (in addition to the recurrence of the family name ‘Sellick’) has been a real bonding process: a ‘testosterone cement’ appearing to join the boys together. The three ‘B’s’; Bernstein– Sam Cochrane, Boland– James Sellick and the aforementioned Birdlace- Matthew Graham along with their fellow marines; Fector– Matthew Knowles, Stevens- Pip Knowles, and Gibbs- Mark Sellick exuded confident togetherness. The ensemble number Some Kinda Time showing off some excellent vocal blending, harmony and tight timing as well as some good, precise movement. Not simply a leading lady but also choreographer, Hannah Long must have a very big stick to have beaten the team into such good order.

The supporting roles (all having substantial contribution to the ‘whole’) covered by Jane Morgan, Jessica Withers, Jason Lemoir and Rachel Bosomworth were played with a level of expertise and quality equal to the powerful male ensemble. Characterisations were distinct without ever being overplayed and the spirit of togetherness shining from the stage was clear. This was very much a ‘group effort’.

Male and Female leads will always tend to stand out in any show but within as highly a talented group as ESL leading performers must be excellent to shine. Matthew and Hannah certainly did shine: The subtle interplay between them as they shyly came together was beautifully realised- tiny glances and embarrassed catching of each other’s eye before quickly turning away worked very well. Their singing voices too, complimenting each other very effectively.

Small details showed the trademark McCausland directorial touch: Hannah filling plastic tomato-shaped sauce dispensers very naturally and realistically, 12” Record Albums and so on. Management of variety of pace was equally natural and effective. Ali certainly knows her job.

I cannot pretend all was perfection: I was a little unsure about the story itself. No reflection on the production or performances here: The despicable, misogynistic morals of the young marines, a virtual rape and even the death of two of the ‘Bs’- a significant part, it might be thought, of the narrative arc seemed to have little emotional impact. Even the rejection by hometown America of the returning veteran– all very well played by the cast but somehow too simple and unchallenging. It felt rather more reportage than drama. Perhaps I am looking too hard for a moral imperative in a piece of musical theatre but as I left the theatre I couldn’t help feeling that there was something ‘missing’. Performances were great so I can only blame the libretto.

Once again ESL have shown us how to deliver a musical: sharp, pacey, beautifully sung and acted. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and I am already excited about the next one.

Thanks for inviting me.

 Ian