Stall-ing for time

I don't go to the theatre often, 'cos I'm generally put off by the stuffy atmosphere, cramped seats and exorbitant prices -- for thirty quid, I can have an entire night out, involving beer, curry and table dances. But on special occasions, for special people, I have been know to let myself get dragged along, and generally have a blast: the last time was on my mother's 60th birthday, for 'Riverdance'.

And so, I found myself in the front row at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket, alongside a host of tourists, awaiting 'Phantom of the Opera' with some trepidation, since I'd always viewed Andrew Lloyd-Webber as the spawn of a particularly easy-listening Satan, fit only for Radio 2. On the plus side, at least it would be Grand Guignol easy-listening, given the subject matter inherent in Gaston Leroux's source novel, much adapted in Hollywood since, with everyone from Lon Chaney to Robert Englund putting on the mask.

Luckily, however, it was nowhere near as bad as I'd feared, with the story being fairly faithful to the original, dispelling doubts about Lloyd-Webber tacking on a happy ending. It's still dark, melodramatic and fairly heavy on the Gothique, while the costumes and sets were very impressive, especially given the rapid scene changes. Indeed, they were occasionally perhaps TOO impressive, you found yourself admiring the backdrops and the other technical aspects, rather than paying attention to what was happening.

And what was happening, to Lloyd-Webber's credit, was also a lot less banal than I anticipated. The opera-within-a-musical format seemed to give him some leeway for experimentation, and while there were still the obvious hits i.e. 'Music of the Night', they were gratifyingly unrepresentative of the overall thing. Though it IS a little hard to pick out the lyrics, when you've got half a dozen people, all singing different things at the same time.

Not that this was a major problem, since we all know the story. Roughly: hideously deformed freak meets girl. Hideously deformed freak loses girl. Hideously deformed freak gets very upset and starts offing people. Given this, it's no surprise that the overall feel was as much Lamberto Bava or Michelle Soavi, 'Demons' or 'Stage Fright', than 'Cats' or 'Aspects of Love'. That is wasn't yer usual musical fodder was probably a good thing in the circumstances. The girl in question was not what you'd call a ravishing beauty (Asia Argento need lose no sleep), but I suppose you have to take what you can get when you're a hideously deformed freak...

This being live theatre, there were a couple of embarrassing moments, notably when the Phantom's mask fell off a little prematurely while singing to his love. To both their credits, she affected not to notice his (sigh...) hideously deformed face, while he swiftly covered up with his hand, while he groped around for the mask, not missing a beat along the way. Some of the pyrotechnics were distinctly of the "damp squib" type, but I guess you can't expect 'Armageddon' on stage.

After two and a half hours (including interval -- drinks not too badly priced, to my surprise), the curtain came down. I must confess to stifling a couple of yawns in the second half, but I was never in danger of actually falling asleep. Admittedly, this WAS because the seats were less comfy than your average bus -- they really need to sort that out, if they want to compete with other entertainments. In no way has it usurped the position of cinema in my affections, and it'll probably be another couple of years before I go again, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it.


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