Monday, 2 July 2018

REVIEW: West Side Story at The Great Hall, Bishopsgate Institute


This week The Bishopgate Institute, in partnership with Musical Theatre International presents Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic West Side Story. This is The Bishopgate’s in house production and is set in The Grand Hall in traverse. 

Written sixty years ago this show, like the original star crossed lovers tale is a classic. This is Bishopsgate’s first solo venture in to the Non-professional Theatre scene after working with Centre Stage London in 2016 when the co-produced Ragtime in Concert. 

I use the term ‘Non-professional’ as AmDram always makes me think of village halls and Tinkly out of tunes pianos: this is far from it. 

First off it’s such a treat to sit in Bishopsgate’s Great Hall listening to a full orchestra playing Bernstein’s masterpiece. It’s no wonder West Side Story is so timeless. Conducted by Ben Ferguson, the orchestra bring every moment and nuance to life. It’s resplendent to say in the least. 

Director Toby Hine’s set is minimal leaving the full stage for the actors and the music to shine and shine they did. Unfortunately these were the only things that did shine brightly. 

I believe that musical theatre progresses and evolves by new musicals being created and grown, not by taking works of art that have been around for several decades and giving it your own spin: especially when it’s West Side Story. The reason it’s so timeless is because it’s perfect. Hine’s artistic liberties drastically changes things. I really do have to speak about one vital change - Tony kills Bernardo by snapping his neck. By accident. Since watching the show I have looked in to how easy it would be to snap someone’s neck and the answer is ‘not easy at all’, it is a deliberate killing. In the situation of the rumble, where everyone is on guard, it’s highly unlikely this would have happened - this is a case of stick to the source material. 

Guy Salim, Lemington Ridley and Chris Whittaker’s choreography wasn’t as structured as expected with West Side; the music is the air for the lungs of the choreography and at times it seemed a bit chocked; Perhaps a case of too many cooks. However the cast delivered it sensationally and America, as always was the moment the roof was raised! Bravo Sharkettes! 

The cast were brilliant and it was hard to remember that all of them are working
in a non-professional show. As the star crossed lovers we have James Gower-Smith and Emily McDouall. Gower-Smith’s Tony is a fantastic vocalist, making easy work of the score, smooth and very pleasing to listen to. As Maria McDouall’s control is superb in the upper notes demanded of the part. Together their voices blend superbly, marrying and working together to pull at the audience’s heart strings. Playing Anita is Victoria Greenway bringing a slightly older interpretation of the character. I believe the dichotomy to Maria worked well in this production as McDouall played her more naive than I have seen previously. Greenway’s vocal is strong and wonderful to listen to, demanding your attention; reminds me of Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, brilliant.

Both groups of men were very good. Form the Sharks Charlie Smith as Baby John and Glen Jordan as A-Rab were brilliant, keeping the energy high which clearly filtered through to the other boys. Their dancing was strong as well as their characterisation, comedy and vocals. 

Bernardo (Christopher Georgiou) led a strong group of boys in the form of the sharks. This gam commanded the stage each time they walked on. Georggiou’s strong characterisation was a stark contrast to the Jets and grounded the piece. 

The most perturbing part of the piece was a girl holding down Anita during the scene we all feel uncomfortable watching. Unfortunately having the chorus of girls taking Anybody’s (Lauren Pears) story arc was a poor directorial choice and spoiled what was a spot on, superb performance from Pears. 

This cast gave stellar performances; which combined with good choreography and the grandeur of the orchestra sat perfectly in this venue. Heartfelt and moving. The cast did Bernstein and Sondheim proud: sadly some directorial decisions let the production down. 

Review by Samuel Clemens

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: C11 | Price of ticket: £25
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