Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Human Darkness: West Side Story, Eden Court Inverness

Stephen Sondheim sent a good luck message to the cast of amateur Inverness company Starlight Musical Theatre in advance of their production of  West Side Story at Eden Court. Posted proudly on their company's website, it says: " Above all, have a good time.  If you do, the audience will too." 

Matilda Walker as Maria
That's really the crux of a production like this.  This isn't Britain's Got Talent.  Out here on the perimeter, we don't have access to thousands of eager hopefuls who will queue round the block for the chance to sing, to dance, to be be an extra in a big production.   Inverness is a small provincial city with a vast hinterland of underpopulated rural villages. So those who do come forward, the ones who are both talented enough and brave enough to try something as ambitious as this, might not always be what some might call ideal casting.

So it's undoubtedly true to say that several of the Jets look a bit long in the tooth to be "juvenile delinquent" street gang members, and that Lieutenant Schrank's accent veers wildly from Bronx to broad Scots.  And some of the cast - like James Twigg as Tony - have been cast against type because of their undeniable vocal talent.  It's worth remembering here that even the beloved 1961 film version of the show had to dub both of its young and pretty leads with the voices of less photogenic professional singers.  Bernstein's music is notoriously difficult to sing, and to play, and the brave little 21-piece orchestra sometimes stumbles over its more difficult passages.

James Twigg as Tony
But ultimately, none of this matters.  The cast do what Sondheim told them to do - they enjoy it.  And their sheer esprit nullifies any deficiencies in performance or casting, sweeps up the audience and involves them in a wave of enthusiasm.  It allows the very best performers in the company to shine.  Twigg's gorgeous voice combines perfectly with the lovely soprano of 18-year-old Matilda Walker as Maria, and their duets are a delight. The performances of gang leaders Riff (Liam Macaskill) and Bernardo (Garry Black) carry a real sense of threat. The vixenish Anita - played by company choreographer Nicola Gray- is superb both in the spectacle of the 'Dance at the Gym' and the intimate drama of  'A Boy Like That', and Roddy MacDonald as Baby John has the makings of a wonderful acrobatic dancer.

Nicola Grey as Anita with cast

The production is loyal to the book of the original Broadway show, eschewing the changes and cuts that were made for the film and embracing its moments of tragedy and horror. The fantasy sequence framed by 'There's A Place For Us' is magical, though arguably it holds up the action and takes the focus away from the beleaguered lovers out into a wider context - although perhaps that's not a bad thing in an age when so many young people's lives are being blighted by conflict.

The costumes, set and production design are impressive, despite a couple of problems with malfunctioning props and crackling radio mics.  The final curtain calls - static, posed, almost dreamlike - round off a great night in the theatre which was actually more involving because of its imperfections. These were real people, flaws and all, delving into the heart of a very human darkness. 

Photographs by David Darge - courtesy of Starlight Musical Theatre

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