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The Phantom Of The Opera, Shaftesbury Theatre

December 20th 1991. 16 F
Written for The Times (London) by Benedict Nightingale

This is the one without soaring chords by Andrew Lloyd Webber or a giant chandelier swooping over the stalls or ticket touts asking the price of a repossessed house in Penge for a balcony seat. It has won no Tony awards on Broadway or Oliviers in London. The face behind the half-mask belongs, not to Michael Crawford, nor even to Peter Polycarpou, but to Peter Straker, and turns out to look rather like a clay panda that has been baked before it was properly glazed. The show can and does, however, claim to be "the original stage musical", since Ken Hill wrote it and the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, staged it two years before its rival arrived at Her Majesty's. The message is obvious: beware expensive imitations.

Yet there is no reason why London should not enjoy both shows. The other Phantom waxes pretty sombre about the sinister happenings at the Paris Opera: the set is a towering blend of curved stairs, exotic drapes and big, black holes: and the tunes are all by Webber with two b's. Hill's production deftly introduces a snatch of Weber, as well as music by Gounod, Offenbach, Verdi and others. It is unpretentiously set behind a neo-gothic proscenium whose curtains open to reveal a dressing room, a dank stairwell, a fog-enshrouded pond, or the roof of the Opera. Its melodrama comes with tiny nudges and winks.

For myself, I enjoy being scared in the theatre, and wished Straker's hoarse whispers had echoed more often and sepulchrally round the Shaftesbury. Certainly, his gloved hands could have done more than emerge from a desk drawer to pen a note for the Opera's sceptical manager or reach round a tombstone and attempt to throttle his rival in love. As it is, the comedy tends to prevail. Even the collapse of the chandelier, a chunky prop from Faust, is more a source of glee than alarm. It brains the tantrum-throwing diva with the dicky throat. "Well, that's cured her nodules," declares the tenor, having satisfied himself that her Marguerite will never again upstage him.

Christina Collier plays the heroine romantically enough; but Steven Pacey gently spoofs, the po-faced decency of her lover Raoul, and Reginald Marsh has almost as much fun with the smug pomposities of his father, the Opera manager. There is much, too much, twitting of camp male singers and other easy targets. "Its an old boiler," gasps Marsh, as he blunders into the antique manchinery in the cellar. "How dare you?" snaps back the grim crone who has preceded him. Donald McGill, not Gaston Leroux, inspired that one.