“Beneath this mask I wear, there’s nothing of me”
I hadn’t originally intended to get a ticket to see Phantom: Love Never Dies, being appalled at the ticket prices when it was announced, but when the National Lottery gods smiled on me and I got four numbers and £64 (the price of a middle stalls tickets plus booking fee) I decided to take the plunge to see if indeed love never dies or whether I needed a defibrillator in my manbag.
It has been billed as a stand-alone story, ie not a sequel despite the strapline being ‘the story continues’… and most of the main characters being taken from Phantom of the Opera, the only new addition amongst the leads is Gustave, Christine’s 10 year old son. The action here takes place ten years after the events of Phantom, the masked man having fled to New York and set up a fairground/freakshow at Coney Island called Phantasmaland. Madame Giry and daughter Meg travelled with him, Meg being one of the performers in the show and looking to make it big in showbusiness through being showcased here.
However, Phantom anonymously invites Christine Daaé to come and sing at this prestigious new venue, an offer she is forced to accept as husband Raoul is now a heavy gambler, and a drunk. So they arrive in New York with son Gustave, and it soon becomes apparent that there’s more than just singing on the menu, as secrets and lies from the past rear their head, long-suppressed feelings rise to the fore and frustrated ambitions boil over with shocking results.
Performance-wise, Ramin Karimloo does very well with the tortured romantic stylings that the Phantom now possesses: vocally, he is extremely impressive and provides the one true standout, classic ALW moment in ”Til I Hear You Sing’. Summer Strallen is also really good in the role of Meg, displaying some sharp dancing skills and great comic timing, especially in ‘Dear Old Friend’, with a nicely confident, clear singing style that made her the most interesting character to watch, but too much is asked of her in the final act.
There’s amusingly kooky support from Niamh Perry, Adam Pearce and Jami Reid-Quarrell as Fleck, Squelch and Gangle, Phantom’s circus helpers and there’s seven boys covering Gustave, I saw Harry Child who gave a very good performance with some crystal clear singing, in a role which is surprisingly big for one so young, though I wonder if having so many boys will limit the amount of onstage chemistry that can be built up.
Musically, this is a mixed bag, both in terms of style and in terms of quality unfortunately. ”Til I Hear You Sing’ is the one true classic here and both ‘Dear Old Friend’ and ‘Devil Take The Hindmost’ (the quartet version) are great group numbers, but Love Never Dies itself is hindered by some really ugly staging. And tonally, it lurches from number to number, from rock ballad to burlesque comedy number, from beige ballad duets to cheery company numbers, all to very distracting effect: there’s really no sense of a theme running through the show, and far too many forgettable numbers. And there’s no escaping that it is lyrically very weak, Glenn Slater really needs to find some synonyms for beautiful.
On the other hand, fosterIAN™ award nominee Joseph Millson is straddled with a ridiculous caricature of a part in Raoul, who might as well be a different character entirely and despite his best efforts, there’s little for Millson to work with here. And whilst Sierra Boggess is possessed of a sweet voice, she does little but simper her way through proceedings, I saw no real evidence of acting skills to be brutally honest (although I did read she has been ill so perhaps I’m being uncharitable).
The set is very projection heavy, with varying degrees of success: the opening sequence taking us from the prologue set in the future to the beginning of the story is superbly realised (a technical malfunction meant that we ended up seeing it twice!) with smoke swirling and an exhilarating sequence of images and onstage performances suck us right into the dark circus world of Phantasma, also enhanced by a great glass horse and carriage.
But the circus theme is not really visited again which is a crying shame, especially given the circus and performance pedigree of the ensemble. And the later projections fail to match up to the initial splendour, the one used for the final scene in particular needs to be a lot clearer to indicate where we’re actually meant to be. Finally, I have to mention the Phantom’s lair, it is a truly WTF moment, like someone saw The Addams Family and turned up the dial in ooky, kooky craziness: the skeleton trolley-dolly, the singing Medusa-head chandelier, the ORGAN-PLAYER?! All of these things simply have to be seen to be believed.
But the biggest crime is the sheer lack of drama throughout proceedings. Given that no less than four people worked on the book (ALW and Ben Elton, with Glenn Slater and Frederick Forsyth), there’s little attempt to build any suspense, the childish characterisations point exactly to how Christine will choose from the word go and therefore remove any real sense of emotion being built up, and the frequent shifts in mood mean that it all feels very disjointed with jarring choices constantly being made, making it ever more difficult to care about the characters. The final scene in particular is interminable, if only one thing is changed then please reduce this in length by about two-thirds!
As a preview, there were clearly things that will be improved and tightened up, but given the ticket prices in this preview period, I found it hard to forgive the mistakes that were made onstage, as amusing as they made the evening (the thunderous look on ALW’s face as he ran past me during the technical hitch was a real guilty pleasure). But moreover and as an ALW fan, I found it hard to believe how weak this is terms of the material, both story-wise and musically.
This is Lloyd-Webber trying to have his cake and eat it: (ab)using the characters from one of his most successful shows in trying to tell a new story, but one in which they are mostly unrecognisable as their original selves so they might as well be new characters. He can’t pretend that this show could exist without Phantom of the Opera, so to treat it with such disrespect in retrofitting events to make Love Never Dies work leaves quite a funny taste in the mouth. Many people around me had already booked tickets for repeat viewings so it’ll be interesting to see what, if any, changes are made for them, but at these prices, neither glass nor smoke horses could make me return to the Adelphi.