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Review of Bare: A Pop Opera at The Vaults

Liv Alexander, Georgia Bradshaw and Beccy Lane, courtesy of Tom Grace
Liv Alexander, Georgia Bradshaw and Beccy Lane, courtesy of Tom Grace

For a man fast approaching his late fifties, you wouldn’t think a tale of teenage angst set in an American Roman Catholic boarding school would be that interesting. But you would be wrong, as one of my favourite shows ever is Bare: A Pop Opera. So, I’m sure you can imagine my excitement when asked to review the latest version of this show as it opens at The Vaults Theatre.

At St Cecilia’s Boarding School, the pupils are celebrating a mass on the Feast of the Epiphany. It’s a pretty normal service, worthy but dull, and as the priest (Mark Jardine) preaches, most of the teenage congregation find their attention drifting. As with all children on the brink of adulthood, there is much to occupy their minds. This is particularly true of altar boy Peter (Daniel Mack Shand) who is hiding two terrible secrets. Not only is he gay, but he is in love, and enjoying carnal relations with his roommate, and St Cecilia’s resident golden boy, Jason (Barragh Cowley). Of course, both boys have to keep themselves deep in the closet in this very traditional Catholic school. Peter is terrified of news getting out, and fears the effect it would have on his relationship with his mother Claire (Jo Napthine). And for Jason, who already knows what would happen if anyone found out, he needs to ensure that nobody, not even his sister Nadia (Georgie Lovatt), knows his secret, after all, it is probably just a phase. Jason does after all, find himself attracted to the beautiful and flirty Ivy (Lizzie Emery) much to the consternation of classmate Matt (Tom Hier), a young man who finds himself forever playing second fiddle to Jason in the school. As they approach their final year at school, the senior class start to work the end of year production of Romeo and Juliet under the direction of Sister Chantelle (Stacy Francis), a streetwise nun with a deep knowledge of what really happens at St Cecilia’s. Can the story of Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers be the catalyst to help Peter and Jason gain the confidence they need to be themselves?

I first saw Bare during its European premiere at the Union Theatre in 2013 and immediately fell in love with the story of Peter, Jason and their friends. This is partly because Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere (book, music and lyrics) have put together a great score, wonderful lyrics and story. All of the characters are very human and very understandable. Let’s start with some of the ‘villains’ of the piece. The Priest is possibly the most negative character in the story, hiding behind the sacrament because he can’t face the reality of the world around him. And yet, look around, see some of the headlines and that priest is still with us, condemning people for being who they are, because of the interpretation of a thousand-year-old book. Then there is Peter’s mother Claire. A minor character in some respects but the centre of Peter’s world and the two songs in the second act ‘See Me’ and ‘Warning’ will probably resonate for both anyone who has tried to have ‘The Conversation’ with their parents and for the parents themselves on receiving the news. Because they are so well written, I could go into a massive in-depth analysis of every character but let’s turn to this production.

Normally, we don’t talk about venues that much in reviews but in this case, I think it is pertinent. Whilst the Vaults is a wonderful venue, there are issues with it. In this case, there are a lot of people crammed into a very hot, cramped space on chairs that become uncomfortable very quickly. There was also an issue with sound levels, especially when trains rumbled by overhead, which meant some of the lyrics were lost. The stage runs along the wall with a thrust element in the middle, and if you are sat in the side seats, you may miss things happening at the far end. And there is a lot happening. Director Julie Atherton makes full use of the stage to create a believable St Cecilia’s where pupils are wondering around and secrets are kept hidden by lockers and conversations can be interrupted at any moment. Designer Libby Watson keeps the set minimal, which makes a lot of sense as the scenes move very quickly, and the cast look like a bunch of teenage school kids with their various interpretations of how the uniform should be worn to the best effect.

Turning to the acting and, oh my word, Stacy Francis is an absolute wonder as Sister Chantelle. She may be a nun but you cross her at your peril. As a play director, she is ruthless, knowing what she wants and determined to get it. But where she really shines is in her scene with Peter when Stacy delivers the best and most heartfelt version I’ve ever heard of ‘God Don’t Make No Trash’. A fantastic performance. Daniel Mack Shand and Darragh Cowley make a wonderful pair of star crossed lovers as Peter and Jason respectively. It’s easy to understand why the two characters fall for each other. Initially, Jason is everything Peter isn’t and the two boys really bring the ‘opposites attract’ idea out in their portrayal. This is especially true of Shand who brings Peter through so much to turn him from a frightened boy to strong man. Another shout out to Georgie Lovatt whose performance as Nadia is lovely to see. From her snide and at times vicious comments to and about Ivy to the heartbreaking performance of ‘A Quiet Night at Home’ Georgie delivers an outstanding performance.

The shame of the world is that Bare: A Pop Opera is a show that is still as relevant today as it was when first performed in 2000. You only have to read the parish notices in the theatre bar to realise that there are still a lot of negative attitudes towards the LGBT+ community even today. This is reinforced by the final moments of the show, which had more than audience member choking back the tears. This production brings the show back in excellent style. It isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but I absolutely enjoyed every minute.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Bare: A Pop Opera follows the students of St Cecilia’s as they explore sex, drugs and queer identity, delving into their minds as they have their own coming-of-age epiphanies and prepare to bare their souls.

Director Julie Atherton
Producer SR Productions
Musical Director Alasdair Brown
Choreographer Stuart Rogers
Designer Libby Watson
Lighting Designer Andrew Ellis
Sound Designer Ross Portway

CAST
Sister Chantelle Stacy Francis
Claire Jo Napthine
Priest Mark Jardine
Jason Darragh Cowley
Peter Daniel Mack Shand
Ivy Lizzie Emery
Nadia Georgie Lovatt
Matt Tom Hier
Lucas Bradley Connor
Tanya Athena Collins
Kyra Georgia Bradshaw
Diane Liv Alexander
Rory Beccy Lane
Zack Tom Scanlon
Alan Alexander Moneypenny
Swing Hollie Ann Lowe

Bare: A Pop Opera
Performance Dates Friday 21st June – Sunday 4th August 2019
Tuesdays – Saturdays, 7.30pm
Saturdays, 2.30pm
Sundays, 1pm and 6pm

The Vaults, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN
Running Time 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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