Jemma Beggs reviews Ghost: The Musical at the Wales Millennium Centre directed by Matthew Warchus, and finds it to be an otherworldly performance.
Seated in the beautiful Wales Millennium Centre theatre amidst an undeniable buzz of excitement emanating from the audience a sudden blast of music, the sort of music which pours straight into your chest altering your heartbeat, shocks the senses, announcing that this is a show you won’t fail to sit up and take notice of. Fresh from the west end, Ghost: the Musical showed itself to be an ingenious blend of modern technology and superb acting which combined to create a sparkling performance which wooed, charmed and captivated the audience.
I admit, initially I was a little dubious as to how exactly this could translate to the theatre – with the extraordinary level of special effects available in the film industry, how would the theatre world cope with the complications of having both living and dead characters on stage? Would the tricks be completely transparent or the ghosts so ridiculous the tragedy of the story would be lost altogether in farce? But I needn’t have worried as under the marvellous direction of Matthew Warchus, the production took this in its stride with spectacular results.
The combination of real props and illusion and the way in which they were manipulated was mind blowing. Real doors were opened and closed, then within the same scene, walked straight through as if they were nothing but thin air. It was impossible to tell where reality left off and illusion took over, such was the brilliance of Paul Kieve (in charge of illusion) & Jon Driscoll (video & projection designer) who opened the (decidedly real) door for some impossible scenes; in particular the subway sequence made even more fantastic by the captivating performance of Stevie Hutchinson, the manic subway ghost.
The opening scene immediately transported the audience from the surroundings by way of a thin projection screen in front of the stage through a dazzling array of stars in a dark night sky plunging us straight into New York’s Brooklyn. This same technique was used throughout the show to great effect, notably for the dark descent into hell – an effective and disturbing montage of red lights, flashing images of manic faces and dragging of characters through the air into blackness.
The actual transition of the characters from living to ghosts was seamless – on the three occasions this was done not once was there a single moment of inconsistency in the setup of the scene. Sam is moving, he dies, he carries on moving, notices he is dead and THEN you notice his body still lying on the ground. Without a doubt, the children in the audience were entirely convinced (even as an adult I had to remind myself this was not real – merely exceptional stage choreography from Ashley Wallen and the actors).
Sam turning into a ghost so early in the story was another potentially major obstacle to overcome which could easily have been disappointing – how could the audience see him as a ghost when no aspect of his appearance had changed? But again there was no need to worry as we were safe in expert hands, this time those of Stewart Clarke who played Sam. His superb acting skills enabled an utterly believable portrayal of a man stuck between two worlds unable to communicate with the woman he has left behind, and particularly his heartfelt desperation was what really convinced the audience of Sam’s transition from the living world to ‘the other side’.
In the inevitable comparison to the movie, the musical held its own and this is most probably largely helped by the amount of input by the original screen writer Bruce Joel Rubin. However, the iconic movie scene of the couple at the pottery wheel was sadly lacking in intensity and sexual chemistry but this is a just a small complaint in a show which was filled with emotion and tenderness. The relationship between Sam & Molly was beautifully portrayed by both actors and further enhanced by the song most famously associated with Ghost – ‘Unchained Melody’ – which featured in some of the most moving scenes of the show. This was by no means the only beautiful song in the production; Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard (in charge of music and lyrics) produced some heart-breakingly wonderful songs sung by the great voices of the cast.
Unfortunately Rebecca Trehearn’s (Molly’s) microphone seemed to be turned up a little too high which, with her extremely powerful voice combined with the very loud music, meant it was sometimes a little too loud for comfort and some of the emotion of the songs were then lost as it was hard to hear some of the words. This was a real shame as the song writing and voice were certainly not worth missing a second of. And although Hugh Vanstone and Tim Lutkin’s lighting was for the most part well done to great effect, particularly in the ascension to heaven which was gorgeous, occasionally the angle of the lights meant it was impossible to keep your eyes on the stage as the glare was too bright. But these are minor grievances in such a fantastic performance.
The entire cast were magnificent and their acting faultless. The traitorous Carl was played by David Roberts who somehow managed to retain a likeability factor despite his character’s responsibility for Sam’s death, attempt to seduce his wife and his downward spiral into desperation leading to his threatening of Molly at gunpoint.
Another remarkable actor was Wendy Mae Brown who provided much needed comic relief in such a tragic tale in the form of phony ‘soul sister’ psychic Oda Mae Brown who was outstanding. From her outrageously extravagant outfits, to her larger than life personality, Wendy’s hilarious performance made Oda Mae Brown the star of the show. The only thing more powerful than her dazzling talent was the depth of feeling between Molly and Sam, whose journey of love, loss, and longing culminated in a beautifully touching finale which had the majority of the female audience members in tears (accompanied by no small number of rather suspicious clearing of throats from the men) bringing many people to their feet in a whole heartedly deserved standing ovation. An otherworldly performance of an otherworldly story!
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Jemma Beggs is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.