The Other Palace, London
Book by Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Hannah Chissick
|Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter|
This year’s National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) residency at the Other Palace sees this remarkable theatre company tackle Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a musical that is as technically demanding as its story is grim and harrowing. A true story that stained the USA's early 20th Century, Parade tells of Leo Frank, a Jewish bookkeeper in Atlanta, Georgia who was accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13 yo Christian girl who worked at the pencil factory he supervised. This being America’s Southland, racial prejudice was (and many will argue, still is) prevalent, with the show’s narrative being driven by the hatred of antisemitism.
Brown’s score is a musical wonder - the staccato phrasing of the opening number, The Old Red Hills Of Home setting the tone, not only for the inhumanity that is to follow but also, brilliantly, defining the bruised brutality of the Confederate states that were left licking their wounds following defeat in the Civil War barely a few decades earlier. Brown's music spans a range of Southern styles and under Laurence Stannard’s baton the ten piece band make perfect work of the demanding compositions. Rarely does one hear Brown’s melodies played to this remarkable standard.
Hannah Chissick has delivered a work of sensitive perception from her youthful cast. On the night of this review (for the two lead roles are shared) Matt Pettifor and Lucy Carter played Leo Frank and his wife Lucille. The love between the Franks is complex - he is a dominant man who struggles with his wife’s aspirations and initiative, while she has to journey from being a compliant spouse, to contemplating the horror that her husband may have been a paedophile and murderer, to finally (together with Leo) discovering their shared deep and profound love as she fights to prove his innocence. Pettifor and Carter are magnificent in their roles, melding convincing acting with well weighted vocal work. Pettifor shining in particular with How Can I Call This Home? and Come Up To My Office while Carter makes fine work of You Don’t Know This Man. The pair’s duet of All The Wasted Time in the musical’s penultimate moments is heartbreaking in its perfectly pitched poignancy.
Brown’s lyrics in Parade are razor sharp and, for the most part, this youthful cast have captured the writer's brilliantly barbed irony and comment. Conor Cox and Reuben Browne open the show with flair as the Young and Old Soldiers, respectively - and it remains a masterstroke of Brown’s genius that we do not see the Old Soldier again until the show’s closing moment of horror. Their talent however is swiftly followed by the Zoe Troy’s Mary Phagan and Ben Skym’s Frankie Epps. All too often productions of Parade will deploy adults to perform these key child roles so to see them played out by teenagers, in line with story’s narrative, and to be performed so well only adds a further layer of distinctive excellence to this production.
There is fine work throughout - Robin Franklin as Govenor Slaton (and, in a tiny role, with flawless support from Matilda Boulay as his wise supportive spouse Sally) catches the troubled gravitas of the Democrat politician. Alfie Richards as chief of police Hugh Dorsey, a man more interested in securing a conviction by any means rather than the truth is similarly on fine form. There is a turn of chilling genius from Joseph Beach as the vile, racist propagandist Tom Watson and a stylish insouciance to Iyinoluwa Michael Akintoye’s Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the pencil factory.
Perhaps the most musically uplifting moment of the show’s second half (where the lyrics could be slowed down just a fraction) is in Samuelle Durojaiye in the modest role of Angela, leading A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ that opens the act. The song is another masterful composition from Brown, contexting the lived, oppressed, experience of Georgia’s black population - and remember that slavery had not long been abolished - with the attention and support that Frank was receiving, as the North clamoured to see the injustice against him overturned. The line in the song “There's a black man swingin' in ev'ry tree,But they don't never pay attention!” is as precise as it is tragically timeless. The song is undoubtedly grim, but Durojaiye comes close to taking the roof of The Other Palace with her wonderful delivery.
It is worth noting that the show does not just highlight racial prejudice, but picks out other failings that are still around today. In Real Big News (well led by Ciaran McCormack as journalist Britt Craig) Brown reminds us that biased media and 'fake news' have been around forever.
The show’s design from Diego Pitarch is simply stated - and it is a credit to all that the show’s varied scenes that encompass a sun-drenched riverbank through to the Governor’s Mansion are all so well suggested.
Choreography from Matt Cole is inspired. Chissick has rightly placed much emphasis on the strength of the show’s ensemble numbers, with many moments of the show's full company proving spine-tingling. Cole’s visionary movement however sees the cast only emphasising the passion of the show’s drama through his ingenious routines.
Jason Robert Brown would do well to contemplate a quick hop across the pond. Productions of Parade are rarely finer than this!
Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Konrad Bartelski