Little Women and Chess, performed by the Guildford School of Acting final year students at the Union Theatre, London and Ivy Arts Theatre, Guildford.
Life’s full of surprises, isn’t it? I fully expected to love Chess, the underrated collaboration between Tim Rice and the Abba boys Andersson and Ulvaeus, but was less sure about Little Women, the much-loved Louisa Alcott classic which Steven Luke Walker, the GSA’s head of singing, had turned into a three-hour musical.
These two diverse shows have been playing in repertory not only at the Guildford HQ but mostly in a historic debut on the London Fringe at the diminutive Union Theatre.
As it turned out, it was Little Women that pressed my buttons, but while director Steven Dexter’s adventurous 3D version of the 1986 West End Chess original, with the six main parts played by three actors simultaneously, was certainly no disaster, at least for me and my guests (one seeing this rarely-performed show for the first time and finding it hard to comprehend), ultimately it has to go down as a gallant failure.
This was the first fully-staged Little Women that Walker wrote as a one-off charity concert with a pro cast at the Playhouse in London in 2012. And his wonderfully talented pupils did him proud with blissful interpetations of a shedload of strong songs, written in unashamedly contemporary vein but in such a way that they never jarred with the 19th century storyline.
The title song, in particular, which climaxes the show with mother Marmee and her three remaining daughters movingly singing ‘Little Women Will Grow’ joined by the ghost of the one, Beth, who died young, is as good a closer as you’d find anywhere.
Beth’s own soulful Act I solo ‘Sometimes’, ‘What Happens Now’ (a very engaging Elizabeth Futter as Jo) and anything sung by the perfectly-pitched Tiffany Melrose (Marmee), notably ‘The First Day’, the lively ensemble’s ‘First Impressions’ and ‘Women’, which Eleanor Chaganis as the no-nonsense Irish maid Hannah knocks out of the park, are just a few examples of a very gifted songwriter at the top of his game.
I was excited about the potential of Elisha Ainsley when I first saw her in Rent and her winning performance as the vain, spoilt youngest sister Amy only served to reinforce that view.
The other two sisters, Meg, played by Rebekah Lowings, and the sickly, shy Beth (Natasha Brown) are less interesting characters but that makes them, if anything, harder to put across and both actresses did tremendously well.
Of the men, George Mulryan’s terrific German accent as Professor Bhaer and his highly amusing ‘Critique’ duet with Futter caught the eye, while Matt Wellman and Ashley Stillburn as the other suitors were nicely in period.
Walker has not only taught his cast how to sing his songs, he also played a fine piano and conducted his merry band of five with flair. There is a lot more to be heard from this busy multi-tasker.
The groupings and dance sequences (choreography by Richard Jones) were works of art, Nicola Samer (who also directed the Playhouse concert) gave the piece plenty of style and the costumes were an absolute credit to wardrobe supervisor Carina Wells.
It would be nice to think this Little Women, maybe with one or two samey ballads trimmed and ten minutes off the running time, will get back to the West End one day – and even nicer to see many of this well-schooled cast up there in the big-time too.
A glorious, gorgeous evening.
The truncated GSA version of Chess has been widely applauded but I felt lopping off a good half-hour and four songs from the original Act I left many of the characters undercooked.
For instance, the American world champion was modelled on the eccentric Bobby Fischer, a deeply unpleasant brat who made John McEnroe sound like Mother Teresa. But I didn’t get much of this from the three who played Freddie.
The bold concept, while good inasfar as it gave 12 additional students the chance to strut their stuff for watching agents, detracted more than it added as it made an already confusing Cold War story – “an inchoate mess” as the Guardian critic of the time called it when it first appeared at the Prince Edward Theatre – even more confusing. And it gave nobody a chance to shine as nobody got a full solo.
Nor did the minimalist set in any way suggest Bangkok or Budapest. We could just as well have been in Barking.
Three singing simultaneously added to the power but subtracted from the clarity, and while it would have worked better in the small 45-seat space of the Union (where most of the two-week run was staged), I saw it at the GSA’s own 200-seater Ivy Centre and even though there are only ten rows, the actors were not miked up and lines did get lost (Little Women wasn’t miked up either but such was the clarity that not a word went missing).
Most of all, the piece lacked passion, so much so that I barely cared whether the defecting Russian grandmaster stayed with his American mistress or returned to his faithful Svetlana in Russia.
However, there was nothing wrong with the singing or the songs. ‘I Know Him So Well’ still sends a shiver down the spine, ‘Nobody’s Side’ is a personal favourite and ‘Someone Else’s Story’ and ‘Anthem’ are always good value. But humour was in short supply (although Kate Eaves stole a laugh or two from ‘Embassy Lament’) and with only MD Peter Roberts’ piano for accompaniment, the music’s lack of variety was exposed.