Twenty seconds was all it took for the Sunday matinee of The Phantom of the Opera to sell out, after Milk & Two Sugars Productions announced this last-minute addition to their playbill. The hype had taken Oxford by force, making the show more hotly anticipated than most other events this year. The opening night mishaps almost felt deliberate: the doors did not open until the announced start time of 7:30, causing a massive queue through the entire Keble O’Reilly Theatre, up the stairs, and out into the rain, making it very clear to everyone attending just how packed this night was going to be. Eager fans had already started humming their favourite tunes: this audience was not only familiar with The Phantom of the Opera, but like millions of people around the world, they were fans.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show, based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 pulp serial Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, first opened thirty years ago. However, celebratory nostalgia was not what this production was after, director Sarah Wright claims. Even so, this staging offered a feast of well-executed familiarity. ‘Oh, look, they even have the monkey on the music box!’ people excitedly whispered behind me as I took my seat. And yes, there is also a chandelier… The faint-hearted are advised not to seat themselves on the front row.
There was, however, no radio-controlled boat. That would be pushing the limits of the O’Reilly too far, where this production already took the narrow space to its absolute limits. There was a full orchestra, backstage. The set rotated, something I was not even aware the O’Reilly was capable of, smoothly turning the opera house into the grim dungeons inhabited by the Phantom. And with this massive contraption taking up half the stage, the director still somehow managed to fit a six-member corps de ballet in the limited space that was left, requiring very careful choreography. While the choreography succeeded, the flaws of the original production were unfortunately exacerbated: Andrew Lloyd Webber created a few confusing scenes in which several groups of people talk and sing at the same time, which in this small space briefly created a cacophony in which nobody was audible.
The legendary success of the musical has made the moment at which Christine Daaé is introduced more nerve-wracking than ever. We know the great names who took on the role before, Sarah Brightman in the 1986 original West End production, and Emmy Rossum in the 2004 film. Rachel Coll was under the same pressure as her character when she was about to sing for the first time, knowing she will have to win a critical audience over as a newcomer. As she – Coll as well as her character – haltingly began to sing ‘Think Of Me’, slowly finding her voice, everyone had expectations, and she’d better live up to them.
And she did, magnificently so. Coll proved to be a fantastic Christine, combining a beautiful, mature voice with a perfectly innocent, fragile character. She is a gripping actor, entirely convincing as the young, naïve, frightened Christine. The only thing that detracted from her performance was the fact that she had to sing the title song in a ridiculous golden bikini, the costume the ballet is wearing when Christine is cast as the leading lady. It came as an absolute surprise to me that only last year Coll played the role of the diva Carlotta at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival rendition of Phantom, given the sensitivity with which she played the entirely contrasting character of Christine.
In an astonishingly talented cast, this production presented an outstanding Carlotta: the Sydney Opera House veteran Indyana Schneider, who for the occasion adopted a most hilariously on-point Italian accent and accompanying diva attitude. Her singing was outrageously wild, as the role demands, while remaining so skilled and accomplished that she received applause so enthusiastic (and so early) that the Phantom’s voice was initially drowned out.
The anticipation the audience feels for the Phantom is different. His first appearance is frightening, intimidating: his singing needs to be impressive from the first second, showing the audience how he has swept Christine off her feet. And this was the greatest surprise of the evening. Charles Styles as the Phantom was intimidating when he sang, but not when he acted: with his ill-fitting tuxedo (too big) and restrained gesticulation, this Phantom was more sad and pitiable than scary. It was a daring approach for Styles, breaking away from a tradition in which the Phantom has been depicted as a Byronic antihero (the Phantom is supposed to be a misshapen creature, so the casting of Gerard ‘This. Is. Sparta!’ Butler for the 2004 film was clearly the obvious choice). Styles made the ending, in which Christine takes pity on the Phantom and leaves him with a kiss, much more believable than in the Phantom’s previous Byronic incarnations. It was about time that someone realized that cheering for a handsome creep who kidnaps young girls is a bit dodgy.
But these musings about the Phantom’s character are irrelevant for the eager fans who have been frantically refreshing their browsers at nine in the morning to obtain a ticket for this production. Even for the rare visitor not yet familiar with the production, this Phantom is simply an enormously energetic explosion of all the talents that Oxford students have to offer.
The Phantom of the Opera runs at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre until 21 February and is completely sold out.