Pyrotechnics, Smoke and Mirrors

I’m afraid to say I have to make an admission – I’ve never seen Phantom of the Opera, and I had no real idea what it was about beforeI came to write this preview. It has always been relegated in my mind to that strange, campy underworld of the West End Musical, so I was slightly surprised when this production at the O’Reilly managed to sell out quite so quickly, and even more so when the extra Sunday matinee managed to sell out in 20 seconds (considerably faster than even the Keble Ball.) The wonderful thing about writing previews for completely sold out shows is that it requires practically no journalistic integrity (which of course, we have by the bucketload here at Cherwell) – I could write the most stupendous, hype inducing piece, and it would have no effect other than to make those without tickets more jealous.

Speaking to director Sarah Wright and musical director Callum Spiller, I began to get a sense of what a mammoth effort had gone into this sell-out production. Firstly, it’s incredibly difficult to get the rights to perform Phantom of the Opera, given that it is still running in the West End. The production company managed to get their hands on the licence more than 18 months ago. 

This makes this production something of a once in a lifetime opportunity, and a team coalesced with great rapidity; as Sarah remarked, “You’re always going to want to do Phantom; what other chance will you get?” The terms of their usage are so strict that they had to get their O’Reilly slot pushed forward to Fifth Week, as a member of the cast turns 22 in Sixth Week and thus would have been ineligible to perform under their ‘student and young persons’ contract.

In order to break with this still-running West End production, Wright wanted to shed some of the campy 80s image which characterises that production and stylistically move towards “smoke and mirrors, illusion and decay” – a bold statement that should prove for interesting design choices on the night.

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It’s going to be a tight fit, and aside from the cast and orchestra of more than 40 people, there is also one of the most impressive tech line-ups I’ve ever seen on a student production. As costume designer Jennifer Hurd put it, Phantom “pushes the boundaries of what you can do in the O’Reilly, of what students can do anywhere.” This production is going to have pyrotechnics, real life fire, a hand-threaded chandelier of 141, 000 beads (which will come crashing down), a rotating stage comprised of two independently turning concentric circles, and over 100 outfits comprised of more than 600 individual costume pieces.

The only thing more impressive than the technical line-up is some of the cast’s former achievements: in Indyana Schneider they have a Carlotta who sung unamplified at the Sydney Opera House, and in Laurence Jeffcoate they have a Raoul who won the BBC’s I’d Do Anything competition and accordingly played Oliver Twist in a West End production.

To leave you with one final hype-inducing quotation (as if that schedule of over-achievement wasn’t enough), the director summed it up quite neatly when she reflected, “There is nothing that is not insane about this show!” I’m excited to see Phantom of the Opera for the very first time next week. If you’ve got a ticket, you presumably are as well.