THE FIRE AND THE QUEST 2
Caamora Theatre Company
The Playhouse Theatre, Cheltenham
Friday 1st & Saturday 2nd September 2017
To help see out the summer, Caamora Theatre returned to Cheltenham Playhouse for the second edition of their blazing pageant The Fire and The Quest, a trilogy of productions celebrating the musical genius of local hero Clive Nolan that included the world première of his newest piece King’s Ransom, the keenly anticipated sequel to his 2013 rock opera Alchemy. It was the 2014 off-West End adaptation of that engaging Victorian tale that proved a glorious Friday night curtain-raiser which brought the now statutory multi-national audience to its feet at the end of two hours of musical and visual splendour.
The cosmopolitan mood continued during the Saturday afternoon concert Beyond the Veil, an international cabaret with Clive on keyboards accompanying his front-line vocalists, and ticking several boxes for Europe and South America. Singers from as far afield as Poland, Argentina, Iceland, Norway and Wales reeled off a litany of frequently intense songs, chiefly from his Arena albums and She: The Musical. A slight glitch ahead of the representation from The Netherlands left me wondering momentarily if anyone had considered an alternative title for the gig: Don’t Forget The Flautist.
Come the main event, however, there was an even greater surprise in store, as King’s Ransom displayed a distinct change of approach. Whereas Alchemy still has the edge musically, it remains a glorified costumed concert, and to all intents and purposes, so does She: The Musical. Ransom veers quite consciously towards pure musical theatre, a holistic and three-dimensional creation which tells its story in much more absorbing fashion, inevitably placing greater demands on the cast, all of whom were well up to the task.
Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel lies dying of a mystery illness. His only hope is a serum obtained from the Unicorn Orchid, a plant with magical properties discovered by the late and eccentric explorer Capt. Fergus Maunder. Enter Professor Samuel King who, believing the orchid is somewhere in London, promptly embarks on a dangerous quest to find it. Determined to defeat him is the suave and sinister revolutionary Colonel Luther Scovil, wonderfully played with real menace by Chris Longman.
The finished article was another masterpiece, especially the atmospheric scenes beneath the London streets and the electrifying second act, deriving its strength from the broad diversity of songs and a substantial serving of good old-fashioned humour. I loved the Madame Tussaud’s sequence in which several decommissioned waxworks were amusingly brought to life. Driving rockers rubbed shoulders with patter songs, music hall choruses and dulcet ballads, notably the chilling Eyes of the Basilisk, the jolly My-Fair-Lady-ish Nostalgia, the exhilarating Stand Fast, the scalding Defiant and even a brief reprise of the pulsating Quatenary Plan from Alchemy. Meanwhile William and Josephine’s moving duet Dare To Be Happy was beauty incarnate.
Nolan, who overcame an untimely bout of laryngitis to ensure this show went on, has assembled a mighty army of talents who delivered regally and garnered another deserved standing ovation. Even so, you’ll have to go a long way to find a finer soprano than Gemma Ashley whose powerful voice simply soared throughout her impassioned, show-stealing portrayal of Eva.
I am nonetheless persuaded that the story may not be over yet. Ransom’s final moments hinted that, in the words of Professor King, “There is more”, and every instinct is telling me we’ll all be back before long for Clive’s next magnum opus, possibly a Gothic horror set in Transylvania. Watch this space, and I, for one, will be waiting to roll out the red carpet.