Spirits were high last Friday morning as the combined forces of the Fifth Form GCSE and Sixth Form A Level Drama cohorts set off on the annual London Theatre Tour. Tradition dictates that Oxford Services are as pivotal a part of the trip as anything theatrical – bemused newcomers soon succumbed to the tongue in cheek hyperbole – and the sights and sounds of the world’s best service station were duly appreciated!
Back in the real world, we enjoyed a seamless drive to London and arrived in plenty of time for stage one – a guided backstage tour of the Royal Opera House. The stunning foyer displays whetted appetites before we had even left the public areas. The privileged private views backstage were a real eye-opener and exploring the labyrinthine site was extraordinary. The scale on which all production elements operate is quite spectacular. We were fortunate enough to be able to sit in the auditorium as the stage crews were executing a change of set from one production to another. The Rolls Royce-designed moving stage mechanism had seemed impressive on the video tour we were shown but experiencing it live was astonishing. There was something to appeal to the specialist skills of everyone in the group but I think the lighting designers and technicians definitely felt as though all their Christmases had come at once when we were shown into the lighting store!
After another London Theatre Tour tradition (Pizza Hut on the Strand!) we had only a short walk to the Phoenix Theatre for our first performance of the weekend, the Olivier Award-winning musical, “Come From Away”. Based on the true story of the small Newfoundland town that opened its airport and its arms to the planes and passengers diverted out of US airspace in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack, it was easy to see why this show has been winning such plaudits. In the face of tragedy, the story is beautifully uplifting. The production rightly pares everything back to tell the story in the simplest theatrical fashion. No second of drama on the stage is wasted – moments of pure theatre storytelling are cleverly sequenced with wit and precision and executed with breathtaking skill. It was a remarkable piece of theatre and I have honestly never experienced an audience response where within a heartbeat of the final note the entire full house stood to applaud in one instantaneous movement. Astonishing! The London Theatre Tour classes have continued to buzz about the show all week.
Day 2 continued the “Come From Away” appreciation. We left the hotel early to meet cast member Brandon Lee Sears at the West End’s iconic Pineapple Dance Studios. There, he put the group through their paces, staging part of the show’s opening number, “Welcome to the Rock”. Given that we had non-dancers (and even non-performers) in the group, the work ethic was terrific and we proudly tweeted a video of the fruits of our labours.
Covent Garden on a crisp clear afternoon was a perfect backdrop for shopping and lunch before heading to the Donmar Warehouse Theatre for our final performance. Mike Lew’s modern reworking of Shakespeare’s Richard III entitled “Teenage Dick” has been garnering rave reviews, not least for the stunning central performance of Daniel Monks (who has hemiplegia). He did not disappoint. His performance was outstanding and the production certainly triumphed in terms of providing a meaningful platform for disabled actors. (Wheelchair user Ruth Madeley was also in the cast.) The tour group though have spent the week debating what the actual dramatic aims were. It was clear what the production was trying to do, but not necessarily what it was trying to say. The first part left the audience breathless with the witty pacing of the Shakespearean allusions, irreverently punning its way through an exposition that outlined high school outcast Richard’s villainous tendencies. However, the wit appeared to dissolve in a darker, bleaker second part that abandoned many of the clever metatheatrical devices it had been playing with in favour of a reliance on multimedia to bombard the audience with a disturbing (and seemingly overly contrived) succession of teenage traumas and extreme social issues. A brave but arguably flawed play, it has given our exam students much to analyse!
A smooth journey back (of course via Oxford Services!) deposited our happy band back at King’s on Saturday night. Another inspiring tour over for another year. Roll on 2021!