Saturday, 7 December 2013

Ushers: A Funny, Energetic Musical for Musical Lovers

I must admit that I was pretty annoyed by the time I got into the 50-seat Hope Theatre at 207 Upper Street in Islington. As part of the show, a cast member appears at the bottom of the stairs to begin the show. This means the entire audience is left standing, winter coats on (there is no coat check) in a crowded pub for, in my case, twenty minutes. I was hopeful that this announcement would begin the show as they intended to continue, that it would be creative and entertaining and worth sweating it out pre-show. I don't like spoilers, but the announcement? "Ladies and gentlemen, the house is open. The house is open." Not worth the wait, but fortunately the production improves 100-fold from there.

Filled with musical references and insider jokes, Ushers: The Front of House Musical, keeps the audience laughing for a one hour, forty-five minute running time, which is no easy feat in our digital age of six second memes and half-hour sitcoms. The energy of the six-person cast is the driving force in this show filled with catchy, amusing and witty songs all about the inner workings of theatre's front of house.

The cast of Ushers. Photo credit: John Hunter

The cast are all strong, each getting a solo performance that lets them showcase their individual talents running the gamut from the almost operatic belting of Ralph Bogard, to the classic musical theatre voice of Chloë Brooks to a distinctly American style musical theatre performance from Liam Ross-Mills, who has the strongest performance, if only by a hair. In fairness to the rest of the cast, his role as Ben, really is the heart of the show and he carries the responsibility with ease. He is both broken and resilient, and the audience cannot help but root for him, even if we are secretly thinking that he makes the wrong decision in the end. His duet with the very talented Will Jennings really gets to the heart of the production and shows both of their voices in their best form. The best performance in a musical filled with good songs.

The story is fine, but certainly not the production's strongest element, that accolade belongs to the cast who are excellent. Unfortunately, the story is dragged down by two recurring jokes, which instead of getting funnier with repetition, become tedious and distracting from the personal stories being played out.

Ushers has a lovely story about two young men who suddenly find their three-year-long relationship on the rocks. Hooray for a production that doesn't bend to traditional romance norms! Setting this conflict in the world of the front of house at Theatre Nation, a nasty conglomerate obsessed with "spend per head" is interesting, but the continuous interruptions by manager Robin (Ralph Bogard) to do forced training sessions on topics like flyers and stalls become annoying quite quickly. Add to this that his explanations are followed by other characters defining words like stall in ways that painfully elucidate their story arcs and this reviewer began to dread the intrusions. Whereas most of the production is quite self-aware, addressing the clichéd elements of musicals these on-the-nose explanations of a very clear plot do not respect the audience and over dramatise a story that is working perfectly well without them.

Rosie and manager Robin. Photo credit: John Hunter
It is often claimed that repetition creates comedy, but it is certainly not the case in the burgeoning love between new-hire Lucy (Abigail Carter-Simpson) and lad-about-town Stephen (Ross McNeill). The first time that they meet, they are dramatically spotlighted, the music intesifies and it is a flawless dig at the way that characters seem to fall in love in an instant in musicals. Both are strong comedic actors and are a joy to watch on stage. Unfortunately, it happens every time they get anywhere near each other on stage, which weakens the final payoff, which would otherwise be even more satisfying. Comedy is so very difficult because of the fine balance required and Ushers is almost perfect, but there are moments where it becomes entangled in its own traps and jokes.

The story, however, is perhaps secondary to what the musical is trying to and succeeds in achieving. It truly is a joyous night out for any lover of musicals. The references to other productions including Les Miserables, Wicked, The Colour Purple, Othello and Viva don't stop with in-line jokes that always hit home, but continue to more subtle and even more satisfying musical and dance homages to Fosse, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent and more. Certainly the audience who attended last night laughed from beginning to end. This is a high energy musical with a sincere and refreshing love story at its core.

Ushers runs until 31 December 2013 at The Hope Theatre. At £15 per ticket (£12 concessions) it's a perfectly priced night out and is easily accessible from the Highbury and Islington tube stop. 




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