The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Review: The Audition

Susan Wear reports back from an impressive rehearsed reading of a new musical at The Customs House in South Shields
A photo from rehearsals for the rehearsed readings of The Audition

The 50th anniversary of Live Theatre, Newcastle, last year, embraced the concept of the rehearsed reading — a rare privilege for a playwright to share their work before it’s finished. 

The writer uses the reaction of the cast and the audience to further develop their imagined world and characters.  The audience gets an exclusive preview of a work they may later see in its fully glory on a West End stage… or may never see again.

While it’s an essential part of the process for commercial productions, readings of new plays by aspiring and developing writers are more likely to be around the kitchen table than selling out the studio of The Customs House, South Shields. 

As at Live, where unsurprisingly Jimmy Nail’s new musical Seconds Away recently sold out more than a week of rehearsed readings, Graeme Thompson’s first attempt at writing a musical, The Audition, also won a paying —and appreciative — audience.

Graeme, a former chair of Live Theatre, was also a successful producer for BBC and ITV, and has co-written annual Customs House pantomime since 2007, so presumably he knows a good thing when he sees it and how to write it.

He uses his vast knowledge and passion for musical theatre to produce a play based on arguably some of the best songs ever written.

Five women at different stages of their careers are thrown together in a chaotic audition for the role of a Broadway diva who may or may not be fictional. They each relate their heart-aching personal experiences and sing their choices from what’s known as the Great American Song Book, the most popular standards from the golden age of musicals from the 1920s onwards.

Under Max Roberts’ direction and Heather Robertson’s stage management the script interlinks with the histories and lyrics of the songs, by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Kander and Ebb, Hoagy Carmichael, Charles Aznavour and Billy Strayhorn.

It’s no mean feat for the cast to pull off such beautiful and powerful renditions of these world-famous songs while sitting on a high stool in front of outsize music stands, reading glasses and water bottles in hand — but that’s all part of the charm of being able to see the process unfold of how accomplished performers perfect their craft.

The final ensemble number One of Those Songs had people up on their feet and some singing all the way home. 

The show was held together by the musical director, Andrew Richardson, who did a superb job in his first acting role, providing many of the many laughs in this production, as well as a brilliantly nuanced accompaniment to the songs and sound track.

Also in a first-time acting role — and first venture into musical theatre — was Rachel Unthank, usually seen performing with the award-winning folk group The Unthanks, known for their eclectic blending of folk and other genres. 

Rachel’s unique take on a feisty recovering alcoholic Kate’s audition piece You’ve Let Yourself Go was in complete contrast to Sam’s (Catherine Dryden) heartbreaking I Get Along Without You Very Well and different again to Daisy’s (Eleanor Grainger) youthfully sorrowful But Not for Me.

Charlie Hardwick and Kay Milbourne, both well-established musical actors could not have been given better songs to sing. Kay (Gemma) brought the house down with her stunning version of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.  As did Charlie’s eternally versatile vocals delivering I’m Still Here and Quiet Please, there’s a Lady on Stage extracting humour and wringing out emotion in a way that could grace any Broadway stage.

The songs are of course the stars of the show, as Graeme intended, and his clever script provides a rare showcase for all of the actors to take an equal share of the limelight. 

The final ensemble number One of Those Songs had people up on their feet and some singing all the way home. 

For a first rehearsed reading, that has to be a good omen for the work to develop to its next stage… wherever that may be.  

Susan Wear is chair of trustees at Live Theatre


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