22 January 2020
‘Ghost’ first appeared as a film 30 years ago in 1990 starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, gathering a heap of awards and nominations including Oscars for the screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin and actor Whoopi Goldberg. The musical was developed some years later, it’s first performance being at Manchester in 2011. The film revitalised the song Unchained Melody, which was written by the eminent film composer Alex North in 1955, and contained a much imitated scene at a potters wheel.
The clever original story of a man being murdered only to come back as a ghost to warn his girlfriend of impending danger is far stronger than many musicals and its dramatic content is one of a number of challenges that faces any company intending to perform the show.
This is my first encounter with University of Exeter Footlights and I will immediately say that I was extremely impressed. In my experience, university theatre groups are not weighed down by a ton weight of funding and so it is really interesting to see how they have staged a big musical on a slender budget. The result is an imaginative, slick and classy production which received the warmest of receptions on its opening night.
The large – 14 piece I think – band are set on raised levels to one side, in view of the audience, while the action takes over the rest of the stage. Impressive use of scaffolding, screens and projections make an excellent set design which is spare and effective. The transitions between scenes is carried out with military precision by the cast and it is difficult not to applaud the speedy and unfussy nature of what can become clumsy and time-consuming.
Costumes are very well brought together and great thought has been given to the various elements of the story – there is a distinct use of monotone colours for most of the characters – apart from one particularly significant one. Excellent work.
Lucy Harris is ideally cast as the bereaved girlfriend Molly; she is passionate and moving and sings beautifully, while Harry Lynn, in the title role of Sam, packs his performance with punch and more thrilling vocals. The duo is perfectly believable and mightily impressive. Tom Dean also makes his mark as the friend Carl – he too can belt out a number with his great singing voice. All the cast are up against a real powerhouse in Chad St Louis as the ‘psychic’ Oda Mae – this is a wonderful performance; bursting on to the stage with huge personality and bigger voice. Every ounce of humour – and the show is extremely funny at times – is squeezed out of the lines by this actor – just wonderful!
The cast is large and full of lovely little cameos; not least from Matt Lawrence as a lightly camp hospital ghost and Charlie Duncan as the rather more serious Willie. The ensemble work incredibly well together; it’s a joy to behold. The choreographed movement and dances are another high quality element of the production and director and choreographer Stan Gordon and Harry Elliott should be very proud of their achievements.
There are a number of visual effects and tricks which are required in this production which are not easy to pull off; not all worked perfectly, but in the main this was fine. In general, the lighting – which was so important with the trickery – was effective, though there were moments when faces which should have been lit were in darkness, particularly at the front of the stage.
My biggest disappointment with the show was the sound balance. With a large orchestra – all instruments appeared to have a microphone – you need huge sensitivity. The words are so important and with plenty of songs and underscoring of dialogue you have to be so careful. Sadly I think I lost around 50% of the words; soloists, dialogue and even the full ensemble were entirely drowned out by the band at times; particularly the drums: the thudding base was almost headache-inducing. This is a repairable situation and I do hope that steps are taken to sort this – I was not the only audience member to hold this view.
This is high-quality theatre, but cannot receive the extra star at this time to categorise it as outstanding. On this showing University of Exeter Footlights are to be applauded for taking a tricky musical and mounting a very impressive production of it; punctuated by performances of the highest quality which will still stand out to me by the end of the year.
CAST & CREATIVES
Sam – Harry Lynn
Molly – Lucy Harris
Oda Mae – Chad St Louis
Carl – Tom Dean
Hospital Ghost – Matt Lawrence
Hospital Ghost – Sacha Mulley
Clara – Freya Burnside
Louise – Louise Pope
Willie – Charlie Duncan
Subway Ghost – Alice Donnelly
Alice Potter (Dance Captain)
Hero Frapwell Roach
Director – Stan Gordon
Musical Director – Luke Sprague
Vocal Coach – Amy Wonnacott
Choreographer – Harry Elliott
Producer – Benjamin Scott
Production supervisor – Nikhil Bolton- Patel
Production Manager – Joshua Williams
Stage Manager – Sabrina Davis
Deputy Stage Manager – Ally Francis
Assistant Stage Managers: Emily Cramp, Manu Moreau, Willow Lloyd-Payne
Set Designer – Scott Fraser
Chief LX – Callum Christie
Projection Cinematographer – Sam Thomson