After the sheer joyful exuberance of Saturday’s classic Pajama Game, Sunday was to be an altogether more cerebral experience, although no less entertaining, as Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s 2000 “rock musical” or “pop opera” is given its European premiere at one of London's theatrical treasures and the future of musical theatre is laid bare.
As we take our new comfy seats in the Union's tiny auditorium, glancing around it is clear that, in a total reversal of our Chichester trip, we seem to be the only members of the audience over the age of 25 and that’s already some achievement in my book.
Set in a present day co-ed Catholic boarding school, sixth form students experiment with drink, drugs and sex and in time honoured tradition try to make sense of their place in the world.
With a nod to Beautiful Thing, Holding The Man, and many a gay fantasy, sensitive boy Peter falls for the class jock Jason, who reciprocates but may just be an raging mass of teenage hormones as he’s also sleeping with the class babe, Ivy.
Peter’s attempts to come out by telephone to his mother and in the confession box to the (closeted?) school priest fall on deaf ears leaving him hopeless and helpless.
As they prepare for an end of year performance of Romeo and Juliet, roles and lines become blurred and it doesn’t bode well for any of our tormented trio, lurching relentlessly towards a shocking yet inevtiable denouement.
Virtually sung-through to a constantly changing melodic multi-layered pop rock score performed by a full band, this is truly edge of the seat stuff. Michael Vinsen as Peter, awkward, blonde, desperate for his love to be acknowledged, and Ross William Wild as Jason, dark, handsome, not simply the horny hunk he initially appears, keep the entire room transfixed as memories of that half life between childhood and adulthood flood back. Lilly-Jane Young’s vulnerable beauty Ivy suffers at the hands of classmates jealous of her looks and Jason’s attempts to assert his masculinity, ending up broken, her young life in tatters.
Incredible support comes from the remainder of the 15 strong cast, in particular Melanie Greaney’s bitchy fat girl Nadia, who takes a redemptive journey, and Hannah Levane’s no-nonsense insightful supportive drama teacher Chantelle.
Levity is in short supply but does come towards the end of the first act as the Virgin Mary, Hannah Levane once again, visits Peter in a dream and in the soaring gospel number "911! Emergency" urges him to confront his fears and call his mother.
It really is a thoughtful engrossing examination of the problems faced by a much maligned yet important section of the population and would be a welcome addition to any school syllabus prepared to take a hard look at teenage sexuality, recreational drug use and bullying. It is also an overdue opportunity to banish all thoughts of the horrors of Clause 28 from our collective consciences forever and the significance of the action taking place in a Catholic boarding school with a sexually ambiguous priest at its helm could hardly be more timely.
Thanks to director Paul Taylor Mills, choreographer Racky Plews and the gorgeously agile cast, the production is constantly beautiful to watch, as the young company strike balletic poses using every inch of the Union’s performance space. Even a drug fuelled rave scene is a visual treat. Rarely have I felt so involved with or cared more for characters in a show.
Designer David Shields also deserves special praise as his creativity astounds and transforms a gilt encrusted altar firstly into school lockers and then a bed with the skilful ease of a Vegas showman.
The youthful cast and the equally youthful audience prove that there is plenty of life in musical theatre as a vibrant, relevant art form that shows intelligent gritty drama is not the sole domain of playwrights. With better tunes and less angst than Spring Awakening, Bare brings us into the 21st century with nary a jazz hand or cakewalk in sight.
Booking until 25 May 2013, beautifully thought provoking, take a tissue and a teenager - Bare