All credit must go to St John Fisher students and staff for pulling off a simply brilliant exposition of one of most well-known musicals in the country.
They managed to unearth some real meaning and nuance to a story that is sometimes lost thanks to the excitement generated by its sing-a-longable tunes.
Nothing encapsulated the kernel of the story clearer than the song ‘No Way to Stop it’. Here, Matthew McKernan’s indomitable Captain von Trapp takes a stand against his fiancé (great characterisation from Kitty Watson) and friend Max (a delightfully sly Ben McGettigan). Von Trapp chooses not to comply with the Nazis. This key moment of the musical isn’t in the film and it really is the most pivotal part of the plot. Here we have three people singing a jolly song about an incredibly difficult moral conundrum. The juxtaposition is deeply uncomfortable and blows away the sentimentality which besets this musical. In the end the most militaristic dictatorial character, the Captain, makes the most humane, loving decision in order to remain free of tyranny.
It’s moments like this when you realise that one of the reasons this production was so much better than facsimiles of the film was the naturalistic performances of all the actors. The characters were well-thought out and never delivered over the top. And how refreshing to hear a straight clear singing style rather than RnB wannabees belting it out as if in front of Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
The whole production was faithful to the integrity of the story. The set wasn’t just a backdrop it was integral to the plot. Sally Hall’s excellent Liesl and Harry Holroyd’s Rolf sang wonderfully on Sixteen Going On Seventeen perched on a pretty garden swing neatly swaying to one decision and back again showing that nothing is fixed and certain in this deceptively attractive world. That unseen character, the mountains, were beautifully painted as a backdrop and when the family were hiding from the soldiers that you saw their character change from an idyllic childhood playground to menacing summits closing in.
The suspension of disbelief was total throughout despite the fact that you had children playing older adults next to children playing children. You were never sure which was harder but they all made it look easy. St John Fisher newcomer Rosie Winter opened the show and her representation of Maria was faithful to the script, pure, challenging and transformative. And of course you’d expect a Catholic school to get the nuns right and they absolutely did! The costumes were superb and the churchy mannerisms led by the motherly Dominique Simpson playing the Abbess were accurate without verging into a send-up.
Some of the tender moments of the show were beautifully lit. The candles for the nuns processing at the start and the follow-spot lingering on the soloists as they stepped forward leaving the darkness of the stage behind them showed us all we needed.
Twenty scenes in all were all executed perfectly and blended together by a swift and slient production and props team who never missed a beat. The stage choreography worked a treat, never over-elaborate but actually following the text and the flow of the songs, giving the performers the chance to be playful.
There were some absolute delights here like ‘Lonely Goatherd and ‘So Long, Farewell’ which the band accompanied brilliantly. Led by Musical Director Craig Ratcliffe they were the constant voice throughout, how apt that they were stationed behind the backdrop as if the mountains themselves were playing to the characters on stage.
And this is way this musical should be performed, with care and an attention to finding the truth in the story. Something the big budget productions tend to lose in the fight for attention.
What a great evening for the fan and the connoisseur. How will they solve the problem of following this?