Go on, go on, go on, go on…


Last Saturday, I saw one of the previews of Parade at the Donmar Warehouse in London with a friend.  This was very exciting, as I had never attended the Donmar before, and this was also the first time I’d seen one of Jason Robert Brown’s works live.  I arrived in plenty of time, to make sure I found the place, which meant that I had a good reason to visit Dress Circle, possibly my favourite shop in the whole world – purely in order to kill time while I was waiting to meet my friend, you understand!  Anyway…

This is a very, very good show indeed.  Tickets have sold like hot cakes, so if you’re at all interested in going, call the box office right now, before even finishing this post, before they all disappear!  There were a few sticky moments in the staging, where the pace and tension flagged for a moment, but they may have been ironed out as previews continued, and other than this slight problem, it was a very engaging, involving show.  It is based on the case of Leo Frank, an infamous miscarriage of justice due to anti-Semitic sentiment in early 20th-century Georgia.  It paints, though Alfred Uhry’s script, Jason Robert Brown’s score and Rob Ashford’s double duty on direction and choreography, a vivid picture of the time with its tensions and resentments, beginning with the Civil War, particularly significant since the major events take place on Memorial Day.

The script and score flow in to one another through underscoring and direction so that there are no breaks for applause during each act, ensuring that the tension is not broken – this despite several numbers having very clear ‘buttons’ at their conclusion.  However, the audience quickly adapts to their inability to applaud each individual number, and I think we made up for it with the applause at the end, somehow.  There are moments of comedy, tragedy and high drama, none of which feel out of place alongside the other elements, often creating uncomfortable yet brilliant juxtapositions.  One example is the ‘Come Up To My Office’ sequence, where a trio of girls tell the court their testimony and the lead actor steps in to illustrate it.  The choreography is both sinister and comic, giving the sequence an extra unsettling edge and adding force to the idea that this testimony is false and ridiculous since the character’s poise and movement style are utterly unlike the ways in which he normally behaves.  Indeed the whole lengthy trial sequence is gripping – you can sense the entire audience concentrating hard, utterly absorbed in what is unfolding before them.  Before us.  Directly concerning us, for those involved in the trial sometimes make their appeals directly to the audience (which is on three sides of the stage).  The prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, in particular, made direct eye contact with many of us, turning the auditorium into the public gallery and forcing us to become in some way complicit with the events.  I recently praised the trial scene in Chicago, which is indeed wonderful theatre, but this surpassed it in so many ways.

The cast is magnificent.  Most of them double or triple as various characters very successfully – the fifteen actors portray at least twice that many characters between them.  It always seems rather mean to single out particular performers in an ensemble company like this, but I was particularly impressed by Stuart Matthew Price, who opens the show as a young soldier going off to fight for the Southland in a sung prologue which introduces the all-important context of the events.  He had the audience rapt as he sang, and later in the show made the character of young Frankie Epps similarly absorbing as he moved through young love to grief and vengeance.  But there quite genuinely wasn’t a weak link in the cast.  Nobody stood out by being less convincing than the rest of the ensemble and each used body language masterfully to stay in their various characters even when on the sidelines, which is crucial in a venue like the Donmar where the seating means that some characters will inevitably be masked from some points of the auditorium.

This post could well ramble on forever, but I shall stop to mention four particularly effective moments, and the stickiest moment, before summing up and leaving the blogosphere in peace.  I have already mentioned the opening, with Stuart Matthew Price going off to fight.  This moves, within the same number, to an Old Soldier returning from the war and then to the citizens of Georgia singing of ‘The Old Red Hills of Home’ and setting the time, place and tone of the production as any good opening number should do.  It climaxes in a glorious choral explosion of pride from the company which is utterly thrilling and also sets the ‘you may not applaud until the end of the act’ rule, as the next scene begins within seconds of the end of the song.  I couldn’t get this number out of my head for days.  The second sequence I want to mention is the funeral of Mary Phagan, the murdered girl whose mysterious death is at the catalyst of the plot.  This is the moment that brought me to tears, as the girl’s friends comforted her mother with their memories of her and Frankie (Mr Price again) making the journey from ‘simple’ grief to a burning desire for revenge.  A more peaceful sequence sees the trial judge and the prosecutor fishing and talking of nostalgia, change and ‘The Glory’ in a song newly composed for the new production.  The show isn’t afraid to let us see the human side of the ‘villain’ of the piece here, letting us in on his character and motivations.

The last of the brilliant moments I want to mention, the end of act one, was as powerful as the funeral scene, but affected my friend more than me (the funeral was the other way round).  There is great power in the staging of the moments after the verdict of the trial is delivered, where the horrible, gleeful joy of the ensemble is contrasted against the reactions of the accused, Leo Frank, and his wife.  Through musical, dramatic and choreographic juxtaposition, the moment becomes a shocking travesty of a normally beautiful image from a Jewish wedding celebration.  It is like being punched in the gut.  I never thought I’d come across an ‘end of act one’ moment that surpassed the horror of ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ in Cabaret, but this is it.  We needed to get outside afterwards.  Brilliant theatre, simply brilliant.

Perhaps it is cruel now to mention the sequence that neither I nor my friend felt worked as well as it could, but if I don’t, it could seem like I just like everything uncritically, which I hope is not true.  The sequence in question is (he says, trying not to spoil events too much) what happens to Leo Frank when he comes face to face with the public, the aspect of his case which has ensured that it remains controversial.  The pace grinds to a halt due to the need to ensure that Bertie Carvel (who plays Leo with great believability) doesn’t suffer any injury.  I can appreciate all too well the technicalities involved in staging this (having been in a show where the same thing happened to one of the characters), and they may well have been able to tidy it up in the final preview performances, but it was awkward.  For once, the tension slipped, which was particularly unfortunate at such a key point in the plot, making his fate less powerful than it otherwise would be by breaking through the suspension of disbelief. 

Despite this, I was blown away by this production.  Script, score, design, orchestration, direction, choreography, performance, everything came together to create astonishing theatre.  If you can possibly go, do.  It is not uplifitng, cheery theatre, but it’s brilliant, which is, let’s face it, a much better thing.  Oh, and why “go on, go on, go on, go on”?  Well, it’s a phrase that gets repeated by various characters in various contexts throughout events and it’s also what I’d say to anyone who says they’re considering attending.  If this show doesn’t garner multiple Olivier nominations (and surely some Olivier wins), then there is no justice in the London theatre world.  The critics in Variety, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent agree with my enthusiasm for the most part.  Others, such as the Times and the West End Whingers don’t particularly.  But you can’t please everyone, can you?

  1. That sounds brilliant!

  2. I agree, excellent review. I loved it too (my review is on my blog).

    Sean

  1. November 16th, 2010

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