On Wednesday night I went to see a student production of Noel Coward’s Semi-Monde at the Oxford Playhouse. Partly because it starred a lot of people I know, but mainly because this year the History Faculty decided to suspend their special subject course on the sex age in 1920s Britain. (BOOOOOO.) I LOVE Noel Coward, and the flapper age, and the ridiculousness of his English upper classes, so this play has all the right ingredients for me with the cherry on the cake of a live jazz band. And it was pretty good. On Thursday I visited the O’Reilly Theatre to watch Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, because musicals, pie, and gore make for the ideal combo, and it was absolutely fantastic.
Let’s not lie: student theatre is often awful. In my first year at university I saw a great deal of awful student theatre, and so until recently had made a point of refusing almost every Facebook event invite sent my way. A spate of friends’ involvements in thespian affairs has caused me to change my policy this year, and I’m very glad I did, because although Semi-Monde was stuffed with familiar faces and that certainly boosted my enjoyment of it, it was ultimately unnecessary considering the standard of the ensemble cast – not a weak performance in the house. Amelia Sparling’s Dorothy and Barney Iley’s Albert were absolute stand-outs for me, frightfully irritating and delightfully camp respectively, accompanied by a brilliant little cameo from Leo Suter and an excellent American accent from Helouise Lowenthal. That being said, Sweeney’s cast was something else entirely. I find that there is not a huge amount of overlap between Oxford’s thesp and musical theatre communities, so most of the faces I recognised were from last term’s production of Chicago as opposed to previous plays, but every single actor was top of their game; fab voice, fab presence, the works. Leads Helena Wilson and Andy Laithwaite’s big numbers gave me goosebumps, as did Hannah Bristow’s characteristically excellent flips between hilarious and heart-wrenching. What I will say is that stood next to the magnificence of Sweeney’s tirade about vengeance that closes the first half of the musical, the main monologue of Semi-Monde looked rather emotionally limp. Admittedly an unfair comparison, but I’m not sure that Miles Lawrence’s Jerome seemed quite invested enough in his own life to form a convincing emotional climax – although his supporting characters made a good effort of making the scene seem like QUITE A BIG DEAL. More than one potentially stand-out scene was rendered a little anti-climactic by slightly off timing or held-back acting. (but some might argue that that’s the whole point of Noel Coward isn’t it?)
On the staging and setting front, both productions played it fairly traditionally but really very effectively (a REVOLVING STAGE in the O’Reilly?!). It’s not just because I am a bosom buddy of Semi-Monde’s master carpenter that I shall claim that the art deco elevator was one of the most effective pieces of staging I have seen in a long time, because it was a real feat of construction and allowed for some fantastically fleeting glimpses of unscripted naughtiness. The 20s adaptations of dance-floor hits from Beyonce to Carley-Rae Jepson throughout the production really were a highlight, as were the painstakingly choreographed dances wasted on an interval. To be honest the sumptuous setting and costuming of Semi-Monde were probably the best bits (as leading lady Lucinda Smart has herself elaborated), whereas Sweeney Todd’s monochrome palate and minimal effects admittedly played it very safe. It was no revolutionary setting (except for THE REVOLVING STAGE), but with such a stellar cast it did the job just right. Not enough blood for me though – never enough blood for me.
On the whole, both productions were really super, and I was not bored a minute. Semi-Monde is a play notoriously impossible to time, and that timing definitely wasn’t quite right on the performance I saw (some hesitations, some clumsy scene changes), but given the overall standard I would be happy to attribute that to first night kinks. Sweeney Todd’s band had a few noticeable slip-ups, but not a half of what I was expecting from one of the hardest scores in the musical catalogue; props to a very in-sync conductor and a no doubt infinite amount of rehearsal. I was seriously impressed by both productions and yes it is a completely ludicrous comparative review to write in the first place, but it was Sweeney that really took my breath away – most certainly the best student musical I’ve ever seen, perhaps even one of the best overall productions. I think everyone in that cast will go far… I shall be happy to watch them.