THEATRE REVIEW: A Chorus Line

London Palladium

10 April 2013

Booking until January 2014

Photo: AndyRobertsPhotos

A Chorus Line has been away too long. This is the show’s first return to the West End stage since it first burst into life at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1976 – and so its first in my lifetime. So naturally I jumped at the chance to see this hit musical as it returned to the Palladium this spring, envisioning a Fame-like, retro dance-off. What I didn’t expect is quite how much I’d fall in love with this musical, or how touching it would be. Most people are at least faintly familiar with the sparkling, high-kicking finale, with its co-ordinated hats and frankly awful gold spangly suits; but there’s far more to this musical than one show-stopping number. Sitting in a theatre watching the experiences, and the struggles, of those who strive to perform there was a surprisingly thoughtful experience, revealing the highs and lows of the performing arts: there really is no business like show business.

Originally created from interviews with real performers – some of whom formed the first cast – the show charts the progress of seventeen dancers through the audition process for an unnamed Broadway show. Yet this is no ordinary audition, as director Zach insists on not only seeing their dancing abilities, but also hearing about their childhood, their dreams and their inspirations. As Zach, John Partridge exudes ambition and authority yet also shows moments of uncertainty which add warmth and depth to a character who is seen very little; in ensemble dance scenes the eye is drawn to him, as his confidence and attitude – and partly, let’s be honest, his muscular physique – dominates the stage. Certainly you would not recognise this experienced stage actor as a former EastEnder. However, although it is unfortunate that his stage presence can only be witnessed in a small number of scenes, his mostly off-stage role is effective in leading us through the auditionees’ triumphs and failures, their joy and their pain, as he questions them one by one.

The musical numbers flow easily out of these conversation without seeming unnaturally placed – with the possible exception of the most conventional number ‘What I Did For Love’, although frankly this hit tune could have cut across the dialogue and drowned it out and I wouldn’t really have minded. Although the preceding discussion is touching, as the dancers become aware of the potentially fleeting and transitory nature of their careers, it drags on for too long and becomes over-sentimentalised. It’s a shame, because the rest of the show adeptly balances poignancy with stark reality and humour, avoiding anything too syrupy: despite the importance of the theme it explores, it is almost a relief, therefore, when the powerful and moving tones of Victoria Hamilton-Barritt finally signal the end to this particular interlude.

In fact, Hamilton-Barritt shines throughout the show, with her rendition of ‘Nothing’ displaying the combination of frustration, humour and pathos which epitomises these accounts. At this matinée, poster girl for the show Scarlett Strallen was absent, but no matter: this isn’t the kind of production you go to see for a single star performance, and Lucy Jane Adcock more than delivered. ‘The Music and the Mirror’ is a showcase for the passion and skill of the dancers in this production, and Adcock throws herself around the stage, somehow both graceful and frenzied. The band can really show off here too: low and pulsating one minute, electric and vibrant the next, while the set of shifting mirrors adds to the sense of swirling unbalance.

Elsewhere, newcomer Rebecca Herszenhorn and veteran Leigh Zimmerman both have the audience in stitches in their turns as Val and Sheila respectively: it’s hard to believe that this is Herszenhorn’s West End debut, such is her verve and assurance as she captures the full brazen hilarity of her solo number ‘Dance: Ten, Looks: Three’. At the more serious end of the scale, Paul’s story is both the most haunting – his apparent grim acceptance of sexual abuse by strangers as a child is an uncomfortable jolt in the show – and the most triumphant, as the expected censure from his parents for performing in a drag show does not materialise. Gary Wood displays sensitivity in his portrayal without overdoing it, and his awkward and understated delivery in fact makes his moment in the spotlight glow.

In the end, though, this is an ensemble piece, and is at its strongest when the full group of dancers take to the stage together, interweaving their particular strains of song and dance. As the whole concept of the production goes to show, they are all accomplished individuals making up a powerful cohort – nowhere is this more obvious than in the fifteen-minute-long extravaganza montage of ‘Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love’. After getting to know, and to feel for, these characters throughout the production, it is easy to forget that they are not auditioning for parts that will show off their sparkling humour or forceful passions, but will become members of the titular chorus line – they will all end up the same. This begins to be made clear as the climax of the show nears, as the individuality of Cassie’s dancing is stamped out: “dance like everyone else!”, yells Zach. The finale is triumphant: yet it is tinged with sadness as these figures have become almost indistinguishable from one another, as their success also brings a certain loss of identity. They are not the stars: they are singing about the unseen star, providing her backdrop.

Yet this cast certainly goes out on a high, making the auditorium sizzle in this glorious revival which has most definitely proved to be worth the wait.

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