REVIEW: Christmas Carol at LIPA

Impressive set, clever puppetry, strong music and a strong cast under the direction of LIPA’s acting department behind LIPA’s second large show of the season put A Christmas Carol leagues ahead of the last show in the Paul McCartney Auditorium, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. 

With virtually every seat sold, the audience clapped and cheered as the house lights faded down and the cast took to the stage for the opening number. Like Texas, the show made use of the vomitory entrances and exits within the PMA, with cast spilling in or filtering out all over the place. Unlike the previous show, however, the actors were comfortable with the musical element of the production, with pretty much the entire show being sung. Voices were strong throughout, with particular vocal energy toward the end of the one-act production. At times, however, the show felt distant, although this was clearly a sound problem rather than the fault of the actors.

Prominent throughout the entire performance was an impressive set, designed by Anna Dunn and Warwick Griggs. Two large stage trucks, two levels high, presented the streets on which the characters lived, being rotated by the stage crew to reveal the inside of the homes. Arguably, the set was a little over-the-top for a short (90 minutes from overture to bows) show, and we noted that certain set moves were probably unnecessary. Credit to the stage management crew, headed up by Ed Hingley, who had to sharpen up their act and work harder on choreographing and perfecting the truck movements with one week, following a nasty fall from the director at the top of tech week. And although there were moments where the truck-pushing crew were obvious, it was refreshing to see them in smart blacks and not badly poked at with the costume stick. What’s worse than seeing an ASM dressed in costume but with a headset over his flat cap? (42nd Street, Curve)

A confident lighting design from Paul Williams contrasted Texas’s somewhat complicated rig, and the LX team at LIPA finally seem to have mastered a Mark Cue on their new ETC Gio – “Texas has a scroller in it” is still chortled backstage.

Lea Bezoari and Rebecca Conlon turned out an impressive set of costumes for the cast of third-year actors, and the children whom were drafted in from LIPA 4:19. Particularly noteworthy was a bright and entertaining performance from Genevieve Lowe as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Tiny Tim portrayed by 4:19 student Christopher Paulson and a strong lead in Jack Quarton as old git Ebenezer Scrooge – although we often think of Scrooge as an old man, and his make-up probably should have pronounced this a little better.

Musically, the show sounded good all the way through, once again being conducted by Henry Burnett and playing from the side of stage – although LIPA probably needs to consider the bow waves thanking the orchestra at the end, as Scrooge raising an arm to the stage left wing makes even less sense than when the entire cast did so in Texas.  It’s great to thank the band, of course – but this just isn’t obvious enough for most of the audience who just clapped anyway.

All in,  LIPA’s third years actors entertained us greatly. We cried in places, laughed in others, and felt drawn in to the musical from the very beginning. The use of a clever set only added to the production value, and whilst being far from ground-breaking it was certainly something new for LIPA and well-achieved in the space. However it was destined for the skip after just four performances, and with the main house at LIPA virtually sold out on every performance, maybe this show deserved a longer run, with extra time to get those ambitious truck changes and fly cues perfect.

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Leicester College, 2010-2012

It’s easy to get misty eyed when you’ve spent two years of your life in one place with the same people. I certainly tend to get a little bit like this, and no more so than now, looking back on two years working at Upper Brown Street in the confines of Leicester College.

It has been by no means easy – in fact, I’d venture that I’ve been stretched more than I would have been if I’d chosen A Levels. The pressure of exams is certainly equal to the pressure of 9am-10pm days, building multiple shows at once, managing teams of people, interacting with industry professionals, working in a 280-seat professional venue, and in parallel interviewing for five top stage schools.

With five other technicians who have become very good friends of mine – Niáll, Lucy, Sam, Dan and Luke – I must have worked on over 50 different shows, productions, workshops and projects, including major productions such as Hairspray and Peepshow which I took on the responsibility of Chief LX for, and the Acting Final Major Project performance of The Crucible, for which I was the Stage Manager. We collectively built a plane wreckage crashed on a tropical beach, flew a log cabin roof made from hessian and carpet tubes, and painted more flats than I care to remember! Personally, I used the facilities I had available to me to further extend my knowledge of sound – recording my Sarah in the Abbey Park Studios, and producing a multi-track recording of the Musical Theatre FMP, Musical Stages.

Indeed, the facilities at Leicester College are what made this particular course special. Not only did we have the Upper Brown Street Theatre venue, but we were also lucky enough to have a virtually brand new, fully-fitted studio theatre at Abbey Park, along with modern, bright rehearsal rooms, three recording studios, incredibly knowledgeable technical staff and more equipment than we ever needed. I learnt to use vision mixers, sound track recorders, lighting desks both coal powered and brand new, moving lights and other intelligent fixtures, show control systems…I was even once caught using a modest paint brush!

It was beautiful to craft theatre along with professionals who love it – Matt Green, Eddie Burton, Cheryl Wimperis, Gareth Chown and Ian McKeand in particular. I imagine it is so much easier to teach when you know and love your art and generally the tutors at Leicester College are excellent at this. All of the people we worked with in our two years had some connection to the arts industry in some way, furthering the industry-focus of the course.

Beyond the rose tinted specs, there were of course problems – particularly as this was a new course that we were the first year of. Leicester College, I suppose, tried to make it all work the best they could but the teething problems were not completely overcome. Even at the start of the second year, everything became new again as our style of interacting with shows was to change from Operators to Designers and Managers, with a crew of first years that were responsible for doing the leg work. Indeed, some of them embraced this – Hayden in particular, who stands out for me as one of the better technicians of the bunch.

Throughout the year there were many opportunities to work with external companies, both at our theatre and at other venues around Leicestershire. Generally these were managed well, particularly shows we worked within Upper Brown Street – these gave a real taste of what it was like to act as a receiving house for a show, and although communication was often vague or last minute the work was always carried out to a high standard. These shows included a production by Addict Dance Studios, which I lit for (now former) Leicester College lecturers Gareth and Cheryl.

Also keenly pushed was our interaction with other groups within the college, such as the Musical Theatre class, and all the other companies for whom we attended rehearsals and designed productions. This reiterates Leicester College’s stance on technicians working in a realistic environment – it was our call to go and get the show information, rather than us just complete a set task to pass a criterion with all the information given to us.

I think often we were left to our own devices too much, especially when our key tutors got busy with the other groups they were responsible for. This led to miscommunication and often a feeling of no staff being in overall control of what we were up to – and is probably what led to nobody achieving higher than my MMP on the course. It’s disappointing in very many ways, but then I got a place at LIPA and enough points for it, so I guess they also did enough – however if I had my heart set on Royal Welsh I’d have been limited.

Overall, the most wonderful thing about training in the environment that Leicester College provided was the playground in which to try out ideas. I often led with projects such as Hairspray, the Big Gig projection screens and recording Musical Stages that were entirely what I wanted to do, using the technology that I had available. No member of staff ever said it was too much trouble or too hard work or not worth it, and were often intrigued by what I was doing – or planning to do. The Internet and books gave me ideas and things to try, and being free in Leicester College’s spaces gave me a safe environment in which to try those ideas out and make them woke for me within the remit of my roles on each show.

I’m quite sad that these years are finally over – I’d quite happily have spent another couple there, producing theatre with the same wonderfully talented people. But we all must move on, and I am grateful for all involved in my past two years at Leicester College for giving me a springboard from which to launch my career, to the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and beyond.