Media Comments

A selection of critics’ comments about some of our recent productions…

 

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the latest offering by amateur musical theatre company Birkenhead Operatic Society Trust (BOST), hosted at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre which celebrates its 80th birthday this month.

BOST is no stranger to big theatres having performed Oliver at the Royal Court last year and are preparing to take on Hello Dolly! in May 2019 at Liverpool Empire Theatre, this isn’t your community centre or church hall amateur dramatics group. In fact, within its ranks BOST boasts performers from the West End production Matilda the Musical, National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) award winners and the most experienced Director of Musicals in Merseyside.

With a pedigree to rival many professional companies, I had high hopes for BOST’s version of Sweeney Todd. The cast was enormous with an ensemble of 26 supporting the principle cast of 10. This enabled a wall of voices to hit you from the first note, creating a haunting and uncomfortable introduction to a familiar horror story. The voices were enhanced by the wonderfully talented band who delivered Stephen Sondheim’s musical classic perfectly.

Sweeney Todd is a chilling story but the cast, particularly the brilliant Gina Phillips as roguish opportunist Mrs Nellie Lovett, added an undeniable humour to the dark and dastardly tale of close shaves and dubious pies.

Phillips Mrs Lovett, was matched by the eponymous protagonist Sweeney Todd, played by Tony Prince, in intensity rather than humour. Whenever Phillips and Prince were on stage together, it all just clicked. They were the perfect pairing – the heartbroken, revenge seeking yin and the love sick, expedient yang. They’re performances where enhanced by the faultless supporting cast, most notably 15 year old Brian Comer who played Tobias Ragg and undoubtedly has a very promising future ahead of him.

Everything just worked, except the set. A good deal of the performance was on a movable high platform which was Sweeney Todd’s barbers shop, above Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. I was sat in the stalls, slightly to the left (or stage right) and could see very little of the action that took place in the barber shop because if was obscured and in some cases completely blocked by the set itself or by some of the props. My view wasn’t as bad as those in front of me or further to the left who couldn’t even see Sweeney Todd’s chair never mind what occurred to the patrons who sat in it.

I feel that the set could have worked much more effectively had it been simpler. It was beautiful and the stage hands worked tirelessly to change between scenes, however I would much rather see the performers clearly with a basic set than have complex scenery and no clear view of the actors.

Overall, BOST’s Sweeney Todd hit many of the high note and is a company I am excited to see more of.

North West End Rating: ★★★★

northwestend.co.uk

Sweeney Todd (2018)

Five years ago, the ever-game BOST dazzled (literally) the Royal Court audience with The Full Monty, while last year they returned to the venue with Lionel Bart’s Oliver!

Now the amateur company with professional standards has pushed the boundaries by taking on Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning ‘black operetta’ Sweeney Todd, with impressive results.

Sondheim created a devilishly difficult sung-through score for his pitch black 1979 musical about the ‘demon barber of Fleet Street’, packing it with complex counterpoint and moments of delicious dissonance.

But BOST’s cast of strong singers has mastered the composer’s lyrical intricacies, and under the expert eyes of director Elsie Kelly and musical director Tricia Gaskell they deliver them with real confidence.

The ensemble, a Greek chorus of everyday London folk, creates a terrific wall of sound in the opening Ballad of Sweeney Todd, reprised at moments throughout the show, and generates a real sense of drama tinged with an undercurrent of menace.

There’s also latent menace in Tony Prince’s revenge-obsessed barber, all Ludwig van Beethoven locks and powerful bass-baritone delivery.

His lowering, monosyllabic gruffness is beautifully juxtaposed by Gina Phillips’ Mrs Lovett. Phillips is an absolute delight as the morally malleable purveyor of pies, a captivating bundle of energy whether bashing out pastry to make the ‘worst pies in London’ or bashing out a tune on the harmonium.

Still, although she reigns supreme, she’s given a run for her money in the flamboyant character stakes by Chris Simmons’ posturing con artist Pirelli, and by Michael Pearson’s Beadle Bamford.

The first half proves slightly stronger than the second – both dramatically and musically, while the two-storey scaffolding set is rudimentary but serviceable.

But BOST should be rightly proud of its ambitions in continuing to deliver such a wide and challenging variety of work, and to a consistently high standard.

Liverpool Echo rating ★★★★

Liverpool Echo

Sweeney Todd (2018)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when this show was advertised under the well-known musical title ‘My Fair Lady’ but described as ‘a staged concert’. However what I did know was that it was going to be the work of Birkenhead Operatic Society Trust’s (BOST) and having reviewed this talented musical theatre company before, I knew it was going to be worth watching.

‘My Fair Lady’ described on the programme as ‘a staged concert, celebrating 60 years of this glorious show’ was showcased in the magnificent St George’s Hall, Liverpool. I was shown to my seat by a cast member who was completely in character and set the tone for the evening. Just sitting in this stunning venue is a luxury alone, with its royal architecture, grand high ceilings and exceptional chandelier centrepiece, St George’s Hall is the perfect setting for an evening of celebration.

The concert was an unusual set up with a narrator sitting in front of the stage, retelling the history of ‘My Fair Lady’ and turn taking with the members of BOST Musicals who graced the stage with all the classic songs and iconic scenes from the musical. At first, I queried the benefits of the narration, why not just put on the show? However I soon saw the flexibility that this concert gave BOST to showcase their magnitude of talent by having five leading ladies take on role of Eliza Doolittle. The company could also veer away from the constraints of sets and theatre stages and let St George’s hall speak for itself whilst allowing the audience focus on the much loved songs and best scenes from this musical. Moreover it was very insightful, as the show carries a lot of history that is generally unknown but this concert shared that information which in turn, helped the audience to celebrate the journey of this musical. This concert is something quite different and different is good.

The history of this show dates back to the 1930’s we were told by Liz Robertson who took on the Narrator role. Liz has very close links with the musical being the widow of Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady’s playwright and lyricist. Liz firstly helped conceive this concert in 2016 and was the original narrator when it debuted at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden; a fitting location as that is where Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins’ first met. Her narration was informative and the concert is well structured with a variety of gentle underscores from the live four piece band aiding seamless transitions between the narration and live stage action. The show also included some ‘forgotten songs’ and recordings which were taken out of the musical after it was first written which added more variety and kept things interesting.

BOST themselves left no stone unturned when it came to transporting the audience to Edwardian England and recreating the magic of “My Fair Lady”. This company knows how to do musical theatre in style. The five leading ladies were wonderful to watch with their undeniable voices, each sharing their own individual stance on the character of Eliza Doolittle. This allowed the audience to view Eliza in different lights and understand the debt of her character even more. It was ‘loverly’ to be reminded of the comedy this show encompasses and the audience was left smiling particularly during funny numbers such as ‘Ascot Gavotte’ and ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’. What is really noteworthy about this company is the strength of their impressive male cast which is often a rarity in amateur musical theatre companies. The harmonies were rich, the accents were apt, the choreography was slick- I could not fault the whole performance and the superb energy which came from each and every individual on stage.

This concert is a delightful tribute to a timeless musical with its magnificent costumes, glorious singing and skilled acting making for a polished and professional night of entertainment. Congratulations to BOST Musicals who are achieving their goal as written on the programme ‘providing a professional standard of theatre in amateur productions’.

North West End Rating: ★★★★★

northwestend.co.uk

‘My Fair Lady’ A Staged Concert (2018)

When sitting in the beautiful Royal Court Theatre Liverpool watching Birkenhead Operatic Society Trust’s (BOST) latest production of ‘Oliver’, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that this is an amateur production.

From the set to the costumes, the casting to the talent, this production is vast and grand in every sense. The songs and essence of this classic musical are simply infectious and the audience were treated to no less tonight from ‘BOST Musicals’.

The musical shares the story of an outspoken young boy Oliver Twist, who famously asks for ‘more’ after being starved in an orphanage. Oliver faces the consequences of this when he is sold into slavery and although he manages to escape, his worries are far from over as he finds himself caught up in a whole new world of mischief with the homeless.

The show opened with the first musical number ‘Food Glorious Food’ by a superb cast of boys who were a personal highlight of the whole production. They brought endless waves of youthful energy and captivated the audience with their presence. The gang was led by Oliver (Cole Boon) whose voice was undeniable and gave me goose bumps particularly during ‘Where is Love?’ The Artful Doger (Brian Comer) led the brilliant ‘Consider Yourself’ number and the stage was graced by a fuller cast which was a much needed lift to the lengthy first half. Nancy (Jennifer Swanepoel) and Fagin (Tony Prince) gave stand out performances which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a west end stage and a special mention must go to Bet (Emilia Lodge) who certainly has a talent to watch out for in the future!

As this musical is particularly long, the pace and energy varied massively which gave important contrasts from scene to scene. Personally I felt that the tone of the last scene did not reflect the serious elements of Nancy’s fate and it was perhaps rushed. However there is no denying that BOST’s production of this moment was perfect if aimed at children and a younger audience in fitting with their delightfully young cast.

It is evident from the stage and from one glance at the programme that a show of this quality does not come together without a huge production team who must be praised for their success. Lighting and sound created some wonderful moments including an impressive snowfall during ‘Boy for Sale’. Choreography by Sarah Walker was another highlight for me, with a strong group of skilled dancers showcasing their expertly slick and complex moves at every opportunity. My only reservation was that I wanted to see more of it! Individual vocals were impeccable and the musical direction from Tricia Gaskell could not be faulted. The above were complimented by clever direction from Elsie Kelly who managed to preserve all the pleasing, traditional and much loved characteristics of Oliver. Congratulations to ‘BOST Musicals’ on creating a production that people will want to return to again and again.

northwestend.co.uk

Oliver! (2017)

When watching the Birkenhead Operatic Society Trust’s (BOST Musicals) production of the Dickens classic Oliver, you would be forgiven for not knowing that this is an amateur production. The combination of professionally executed choreography and the raw musical talent of the cast makes this a performance that wouldn’t look out of place on the West End.

BOST Musicals pulled out all the stops for this production; a versatile set coupled with true-to-life costumes, give the cast everything that they need to tell the story of the boy who asked for more. The plot follows the orphan protagonist as he is sold to the local undertaker, only to escape and find himself with a mischievous group of child-pickpockets, lead by the enigmatic Fagin (Tony Prince).

The songs that feature in Oliver are designed to take you on an emotional journey through the highs and lows of the Victorian period: the vocal ability of the cast, paired with the live band lead by Tricia Gaskell, really bring the turbulent events of the story to life.

The show opened with an uplifting rendition of Food, Glorious Food, performed by a talented cast of boys. They brought an energy throughout the performance, entertaining the audience with what was clearly a well-polished piece of choreography. Oliver (Cole Boon) broke into a heartfelt solo performance of the song Where is Love; bringing the focus onto the harsh reality of orphan life – ushering in one of the largest rounds of applause of the evening.

Brian Comer easily steps into the role of The Artful Dodger, portraying the character’s mischievous cockney charm well. He then bursts into the performance of Consider Yourself, at which point the stage comes to life with an almost-full cast filling the space for a sensory explosion of song and dance.

BOST Musicals made the right casting decision with Jennifer Swanepoel as Nancy and Tony Prince as Fagin, both giving exceptional performances that captured the essence of their characters. Swanepoel maintains her accent and hits all the right notes as she performs As Long as He Needs Me, showing the acting ability of a seasoned musical performer.

Prince switches from his harsh, dry cockney accent to a deeply operatic tone with ease as he sings You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, making it clear why he was nominated for a NODA North West award for the same role 4 years earlier.

This is a lengthy musical that features contrasting elements, and the pace of the performance varies dramatically from scene to scene. This makes for interesting viewing, as the tone of the play shifts from melancholic to joyous and back to melancholic fairly quickly, highlighting the whirlwind nature of Oliver’s journey. One point to consider is that Nancy’s final scene could’ve been more suspenseful, and was in fact dealt with in a rather perfunctory manner when compared with the high energy of previous scenes.

It is impressive to see an amateur theatre company put together such a professional performance. The hard work of the cast is complemented by the impressive set design, which featured a dramatic downfall of snow, helping to set the tone throughout the song Boy For Sale.

Another highlight is the choreography by Sarah Walker that kept a stage full of actors coordinated throughout the duration of the performance. It is safe to say that when you see the combination of talent and hard work that has gone into this production, it will leave you asking for more.

howtodotheatre.com

Oliver! (2017)

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© 2018 Birkenhead Operatic Society.
Alexander Hall, 24A Clifton Road, Birkenhead, Wirral, CH41 2SG
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