by Thea Hartman
I remember fondly one of the very last outings I went on before the world was turned upside down: Saturday 7 March 2020, closing night of Be More Chill at the Annex Theatre, University of Southampton.
It’s only about six weeks ago, but it feels like at least a year has passed. Therefore, I couldn’t possibly call this a review because I couldn’t be objective (can anyone ever be, really?) – that night is already rose-tinted with nostalgia. So I would like to offer my apologies for the delay, Showstoppers – I got majorly distracted, I hope you understand… but I’m here now, ready to sing (not half as well as you) your praises.
Directed by Alex Wareham and Lizzy Bajegbo, the Showstoppers Spring show was one of the first amateur productions of Be More Chill in the UK. For those of you who haven’t encountered this show yet, it is a classic American coming-of-age high school story which feels comfortably familiar as the nerdy Jeremy (Will Fieldhouse) tries to become ‘cool’ in order to get the girl – Christine (Ellen Goggin) – who is just as much of a nerd as he is in my opinion, but just much more confident. However, there’s a dystopian twist: in his attempt to be a ‘cool guy,’ Jeremy gets one step too close to technology and just about ruins everyone’s lives.
The story from there is what you’d expect: there’s bullying, mind control (okay, maybe you wouldn’t quite expect that), romance, friendship, betrayal… the works. Basically, the whole show screams a really positive message that people of all ages have heard and still need to hear: there is no right way to act to be cool; being cool is equivalent to being yourself.
And that’s what Showstoppers did, and what they have done in every show I have seen them perform (maybe not directly, but you get me). The mountains of work that went into this show were visible because of how smoothly and flawlessly it all flowed. The acting and singing was all around incredible: nuanced, never overdone, and authentic – also, the harmonies were genuinely goosebump-inducing. Whilst the characters may be very relatable to a group of students, the way the actors completely inhabited them deserves all the credit in the world regardless. Katie Staines’ choreography was very intricate and well executed – I can say from experience robot moves are not as easy as they seem, especially when they’re done in sync.
Now, the music. The score of this show is unbelievably good in and of itself (definitely went home and played ‘Michael In The Bathroom’ 100 times, but caught myself thinking of Ed Patience’s absolutely fabulous performance) yet also unbelievably difficult. The band, led by Musical Director and fellow Arts Ambassador Molly Ellis and Assistant Musical Director Charlie English, were almost constantly playing – be it heartfelt pop-rock ballads, ‘bangers’, or synth-heavy music whenever the ultra high-tech S.Q.U.I.P (so unsettlingly embodied by George Gunn) was controlling Jeremy’s life. I didn’t think a show with a live band would be able to simultaneously create a sci-fi, dystopian atmosphere – but I couldn’t be more wrong. Every musical moment was performed perfectly – there was emotion, there was frustration, and many goosebumps in the jam-packed Annex.
I have absolutely no regrets that what is very likely to be my last outing to the theatre for the next six months was to see a student production. Why would I, anyway? I strongly believe student theatre doesn’t get enough credit for the frankly preposterous amount of work they put into their shows (and there are so many shows) alongside studying for their degrees. They don’t get paid, it’s not what they do for a living – yet they spend tonnes of hours pouring their hearts and skills into their productions out of pure passion. By definition, they are amateurs at the moment – without any shade of the negative connotation this label tends to carry – but they stand as examples of professionalism to many. As they’re reading this they’re probably jiggling their legs with anticipation for the moment they can start rehearsing again – and they deserve all the respect in the world for their passion, dedication, and professionalism.
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