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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

David De Silva’s 1980 film was developed by him commissioning Jose Fernandez, Jacques Levy and Steve Margoshes for book lyrics and music respectively. Directed and choreographed by Nick Winston in Theatre Royal Brighton in this leg of the tour gets a band directed by Dustin Conrad, Designed by Morgan Large with Prema Mehta’s lighting and Ben Harrison’s sound.


Fame. You can’t get it out of your head. David De Silva’s 1980 film directed by Alan Parker is still the reference point and that title song written by Dean Pitchford and Michael gore is still a stand-alone.


That wasn’t enough Fame. De Silva developed the TV series and other spin-offs, and this 1988 musical, commissioning Jose Fernandez, Jacques Levy and Steve Margoshes for book lyrics and music respectively. Christopher Gore’s gritty original script has been slimmed down and out go unwanted pregnancies and coming out. There’s still a heart-lurching darkness near the end though. And it’s in the latter half this fast-wheeling show gains depth, directed and choreographed by Nick Winston in the rather cramped Theatre Royal Brighton, in this leg of the tour from Selladoor Entertainment. The excellent band’s directed by Dustin Conrad.


Designed by Morgan Large boosted with Prema Mehta’s lighting and Ben Harrison’s sound – through Brighton Theatre Royal’s beefy system – the set’s a clean space with an active backdrop: of lozenges of headshots, squared round by neon lights flaring up in different colour, or just vertical grids. It’s emblematic and tells you everything, those who want to go up in lights. Finally just one head is revealed for different reasons. The foreground’s busy with tumbling dancers avoiding the swirl of desks, changing lockers in light turquoise, and whooshed under the flexible backdrop little carts of drumkits, piano and performing platforms. And there’s a single gantry for crucial stand-alones and a climactic love scene.


Fame Academy exists, with a cumbersome title after its merger in 1984. But here, set as the last graduates of the place a few years on from the movie, we encounter a slightly different group. It’s all presided over by a trio. Mica Paris’ tough-tender Principal Miss Sherman gets a regal number ‘it’s my privilege to have taught them’ and brings the house down in the second half. Katie Warsop’s Miss Bell the choreography teacher the empathic good cop, and Cameron Johnson’s Mr Myers the paternal drama director and all round psychologist as he explains when challenged, both try to protect students from their own slash n’burn. Duncan Smith’s conductor Mr Scheinkopf (literally ‘shining pate’) has a walk-on and off spilling scores as he despairs of teaching Mozart – though we get a tasty arrangement. All are sharply characterised. It’s the swirl of students you have to steady.


Albey Brookes’ extrovert Joe, the braggadocio of the pack who cant bother with Shakespeare brings a high-energy performance. He’s hitting on fellow Latino Carmen Dias, Stephanie Rojas’ super-ambitious character whose trajectory’s the most absorbing of all. Her later excoriating ‘They Can Do It in LA’ about a decision she makes is the acerbic highlight and cost of going alone. She’s more drawn to serious Schlomo, Simon Anthony’s serious depiction of a serious composer breaking away from his virtuoso violinist fathers dreams for him to follow, when piano and lyrics – Carmen soon supplies their winning number – beckon. Even Scheinkopf can’t distract him. He’s also a fine guitarist and pianist, a superb musical all-rounder.


Anthony’s in distinctive voice, gritty and powerful. Rojas’ voice too, in the ‘Fame’ number at the end of the first act and the excoriating obverse about LA in the second owns a piercing and smokily characterful timbre – particularly in the latter, the most wrenching song of all.


Two other couples dominate. Jamal Crawford’s Tyrone is a budding choreographer impatient of ballet but is schooled particularly when apparent rich kid Iris turns up. She soon disabuses him, and having never been kissed she makes sure she makes up for it with the vulnerable Tyrone. He has a secret and there’s two explosive confrontations with Sherman, defended by Bell and finally, you’ll see. Dyslexia is one welcome issue carried over from the film and Tyrone’s near walkouts are perilous. Crawford’s superb both as dancer and character. Jorgie Porter’s Iris the straight A student has a fair amount to do initially, but without a latter conflict except to save Tyrone isn’t as developed. She dances beautifully, given the most balletic routine perhaps of the main character roles.


Keith Jack’s one of the draws here. He’s playing Nick the Stanislavsky student, that is, one who studies the theory of truthful acting and is wholly self-absorbed. That’s not entirely surprising, he’s been pushed into acting since a child and is famous for a string of adverts and other TV appearances. When Molly McGuire’s Serena wishes she had a mother like that Nick ripostes: ‘believe me, you don’t.’


Initially fame-struck, averse to inwardness, Serena’s experiences deepen her to exactly the kind of actor Nick feels she could be. She’s hot for him and him alone; he just wants friendship. Nick’s reacting to his mother and much else; and though this might have ‘been a coming-out story in the end it isn’t. Having to show Joe cast as Romeo against type (quite deliberately by Myers) Nick has to demonstrate how to woo Serena’s Juliet. Nick talks of how the couple must have seen each other daily in a small town for ages before recognizing…. ‘Well… Was that kiss authentic?’ Myers asks to a forest of raised hands. It’s a running gag and this its climax. Jack’s fine and projects the student-intensity you need from Stanislavksy-Nick. McGuire – whose blaze of self-realisation comes just in time to be Juliet – has a terrific riff in the final song and is one of the most able singers.


There’s comic characters too. Hayley Johnston’s food-busting and shapely Mabel is obsessed with food and switches from dancing to drama. Her acetylene accent’s ideal for shearing off bullshit and what you might call soubrette roes; she ends up with Joe and you reckon she’ll handle him. Her own comic number’s satisfyingly in character. Alexander Zane’s flop-heard Goody is a superb trombonist and another comedic addition. As is Louise Beadel’s Lambchops who makes a fantastically-haired drummer, characterised a bit like Animal in the Muppets. The eight swing/ensemble group acquit themselves superbly. One or two play musical instruments. It’s a pity we can’t identify who.


I won’t spoil the end though you can see themes and couplings rippling through the role-call. There is darkness and heartbreak ahead. Living forever might not be for long. But otherwise it’s mostly a feelgood happily-tied set of couples moving on to further their fame.


Numbers aren’t individually listed so it’s difficult to name them but – generously – the leads each get one. The second half is worth waiting for, though it’s not the most profound adaptation and I wonder why some of the grit didn’t transfer. It won many awards and has spawned a sequel.


Though long into its tour, this production started an unprecedented thirty-five minutes late, meaning some left in the interval since it didn’t end till 22.50. This was because the set’s measurements hadn’t been processed early enough and the Theatre Royal’s smaller stage not taken into consideration. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again to this production or any other.


This is an excellent feelgood musical though there’s superabundant dance content. Excellent though this is, slightly inhibited in this theatre’s space, it means Winston as director and choreographer produces a long show without upping the content. Indeed he reduces it because the dance element’s so active. A separate director might have pushed for more matter.


There’s much to praise. The opening rapid-cuts and the sheer élan are infectious and often brilliant. Though we could have sacrificed a few more repeat hair-flinging routines for a bit more investment in the characters. I wonder what David de Silva thinks. The journey’s all there and you’ll doubtless not have to wait for curtain-up.