For most people who know me and have ever had any kind of a discussion of musicals with me, you’ll be well aware, no doubt, of my “issues” with Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (which, apparently, is a registered trademark, according to the writing on the back wall of the set…).
I think the best description of my attitude towards Joseph is “jaded”. Having worked at Milton Keynes Theatre – one of the country’s biggest receiving houses – for nearly seven years, on and off, I have seen Joseph pass through, in one incarnation or another, five or six times. It’s a great, vibrant, fun show, but after the third or fourth year, having seen the comings and goings, the shabby sets and sometimes dodgy backing performers, you can get a little tired of it.
Which is why sitting in the audience of the Adelphi on the Strand last night I felt a tremor of fear rippling through me. Lee Mead was a classmate of my cousin’s at a local drama school in Southend way back in the day, so they have been following his progress carefully since he first popped up on the BBC’s show about the show’s lead. I have to say he was always a clear winner of that, so I figured that the show must be worth going to see to find out if I was right or not.
In addition (and probably more importantly), K is possibly the only person in the world who loves Joseph so much she not only knows it word for word, but when we was still single-figured in age she managed to wear out the tape of the original London cast recording with Jason Donovan, and yet has NEVER actually seen the show. To say she was excited is like saying people think Michael Jackson is a little on the odd side.
The show itself was outstanding, I must admit. It’s got an absolutely fantastic cast who are all consummate professionals to a man, woman and child. The quality of the singing and dancing was fantastic. Having read the notices when the show first opened, it appear to suggest that they had simply jazzed up the sets from the touring production, but this was like nothing I’ve seen on the tour – they’ve re-imagined it (to steal a pseudo intellectual arty-farty term from the movies) and come up with something very similar in concept by with many more modern flourishes.
I’m told that the whole production is based on the 90s Palladium version, starring first Jason Donovan and then the slightly left-field but equally acclaimed Philip Schofield. It certainly has a much bigger feel to it than the touring version and is a lot busier with set moves and scene changes.
The whole thing is technically remarkable, very much akin to the proverbial duck on the water – the staging is incredibly simplistic and the technical side appears incredibly simple. But sitting and watching the vast variety of pieces coming to and fro around the two revolves centre-stage, it is easy to imagine the manically-paddling feet of the technicians backstage.
Talking to one of the cast after the show (which I’ll come to later), he was explaining how the technicians are almost as precisely choreographed as the performers on stage, such are the quick-change demands of the props and set dressings that are almost constantly on the move.
As is my wont at most theatre I go to now, with several friends working in the theatre and knowing some of their friends, I tend to scan the programme for names I may recognise in passing. Imagine my surprise when, glancing down the cast list, I came across the name of a good friend of mine from my early days working the bars at MKT. A friend who ran away from MK and his “cosy” box office job to enroll and subsequently take by storm the Guildford School of Acting.
Not having had his number for some years, I legged it around to stage door during the interval (not as simple in Town as it is in MK or Northampton, it must be said) and dropped him a note with my number on it to see if he wanted to catch up. I was a mite nervous of meeting him as I was informed by K that she had been horrible to him when she knew him before. That was before I realised she had meant when they were 8. I figured he’d probably got over it by now.
So after the show we ambled round to stage door, dodging the throngs at the front of the theatre waiting for Mr Mead, and met up with JS and headed to a quiet little bar just around the corner for a drink and a catch up.
JS is one of my friends I’m most proud of – he’s gone out and done what he’s always wanted to do. So many people who work front of house in theatres spend a lot of time talking about how they want to be on the stage singing, dancing, acting and everything else. JS actually got off his arse and went and did it.
He auditioned like mad, got into a great drama school, did three years of hard graft and came out at the top of his class. After jobbing for a year or so post-graduation, he joined the original cast of the new Joseph from the start and opened the show in the West End, where he’s now done a full 18 months and still has 6 months on his contract. Not only that but, as a Swing, he has the hardest performing job in the West End.
Not many people know what a Swing is, other than it being a name at the end of the list of characters in most musical programmes. A Swing is, in essence, a cover-player. They are there to fill in the gaps when anyone is off sick or injured. There are two types of swing – an on-stage swing or an off-stage swing. An off-stage swing is essentially an understudy for a lot of roles, an on-stage swing is basically a performer in the show who plays whoever he’s needed to play.
In Joseph, for example, that means that JS has to know the part of every male character in the show, bar Joseph, Jacob and the Pharaoh – all three of which have their own understudies. That equates to 11 different roles that he has to know inside-out and be able to play at the drop of a hat. And he rarely plays the same role more than a week at a time and often changes role every night.
Next time you’re in the Theatre and glancing down the first few names on the cast list, take a look down the bottom and spare a thought for the hardest working performers in the Theatre – eight shows a week of they-know-not-what, but rarely put a foot wrong.
All in all, it was an awesome night – a great show (albeit with a few slightly odd stylistic decisions – the less said about the random psychedelic 60s sequence the better) and a great time catching up with an old friend. Who could ask for more. I want to say a big thanks to my Ma and Pa for getting the tickets for us as a first 2nd birthday present – it couldn’t have been better.
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