Monday, June 24

Love Never Dies – Wolverhampton Grand

When Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom’-follow-up ‘Love Never Dies’ hit the West End in 2010, it opened to a critical mauling that led to the show being closed to allow significant reworking.  The press still wasn’t too kind, with some jokingly retitling the show as ‘Paint Never Dries’.  While the show never stood a chance of replicating the success of its predecessor, there is still a lot of love for it in theatreland, as showed by the standing ovations at the Drury Lane concerts last year.  And now it’s time for the country’s amateur groups to have a bash, starting with the West Bromwich Operatic Society (WBOS), who are performing the show this week at the Wolverhampton Grand.

Loosely based on the 1999 novel ‘The Phantom Of Manhattan’ by Frederick Forsyth, ‘Love Never Dies’ takes place a decade after the events of ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’, where we last saw lovers Christine Daae (Mollie-Anna Riley) and Raoul (Tye Harris) escaping the lair of the Phantom (Dan Smith), as he stayed behind as it burned down around him.  We learn that he survived, aided in his escape by Madame Giry (Sarah Moors) and her daughter Meg (Holly White), who have since established a Vaudeville-style attraction called ‘Phantasm’ in Coney Island, with the Phantom pulling the strings behind the scenes.  Meanwhile, Christine receives an invitation to perform for Oscar Hammerstein I at the attraction, oblivious that the Phantom is behind the ruse.  She beings Raoul on the trip, along with 10-year-old son Gustave (Elijah Critchley), and soon finds her world turned upside down when the Phantom reveals himself to her, as secrets from a decade ago are shared, to the delight of some and the horror of others.

Arguably Webber’s last fully cohesive score, ‘Love Never Dies’ doesn’t deserve the backlash that it received back in the day, most of which was aimed at its plot.  Musically it is soaring orchestral opulence, with lush sweeping romantic melodies that rank among the composer’s finest work.  Yes, some of the lyrics are clunky and unintentionally funny from taking themselves far too seriously (Charles Hart had to famously rework some of Glenn Slater’s earlier efforts), but they can largely be forgiven when the music behind them is so gloriously rich.  The problem comes with the book (by Weeber and Ben Elton), which can kindly be described as a soap opera with some baffling character choices.  Webber has said he believes that a good story can save a poor score, but a good score can’t save a bad story, which is beguiling given that the plot of ‘Love Never Dies’ is by far its weakest element.  It comes across as a die-hard ‘Phantom’-fan’s attempt at an unnecessary sequel, ‘Phan-fiction’ written certainly with enthusiasm but perhaps not logic.  Christine and Raoul bear little resemblance to who they were before, Raoul in particular with sudden gambling and alcoholism problems, and Christine’s continuing love for the Phantom despite everything he did and continues to do stretches believability to breaking point.  ‘Love Never Dies’ really is a musical where common sense needs to be left in the foyer, switch your brain off, and let its music win you over.

This production marks the UK amateur premiere of ‘Love Never Dies’, and good luck to the next group that attempt it, because WBOS have set an incredibly high standard and delivered a remarkable show.  The standard of UK Am-Dram continues to climb, and WBOS are on excellent form.  This is a big show to take on, tough to delivery, and WBOS are bravely ambitious to attempt to even try, but their gamble has paid off.  Confidently directed by Simon Pugh, the production really delivers the macabre brooding tone of the piece, along with the sweeping romanticism.  It’s overly melodramatic, but that’s in keeping with the Phantom brand, and it works.  The set looks great and is used well, impressive in detail and scale for an amateur show.  The ensemble work really well at creating the “circus/carnival” vibe and are effectively eccentric throughout, as well as delivering some inventive choreography (Claire Favell).  The orchestra sound rich and strong too, led by Musical Director Ian Room, and really show Webber’s score off.

The Phantom and Christine are two of the biggest roles in musical theatre, so anyone trying to step into these formidable shoes already deserves respect, but Dan Smith and Mollie-Anna Riley do a genuinely great job here.  While the very top notes may be a hair’s breadth outside of Smith’s comfortable range, he still does really well with a strong lower voice and also capturing the theatrical mannerisms of the Phantom brilliantly.  Riley sings her heart out as Christine and gives a near-professional level performance throughout, sounding glorious.  Her rendition of the title song is worth the ticket price alone.  Tye Harris gives Raoul a surprising amount of depth, particularly in the second act, and conveys believable turmoil during “Why Does She Love Me?”.  Holly White is another standout as Meg, with a confident assured voice and delivering the “Vaudeville” scenes with a cheery optimism which she contrasts effectively with desolation at the story’s conclusion.  Special mentions also need to go to Sarah Moors for her brilliantly controlled Madame Giry (with great French accent), and 11-year-old Elijah Critchley as Gustave, who does a wonderful job with a significant amount of tricky vocals and dialogue.

‘Love Never Dies’ is a flawed masterpiece, musical grandeur that soars if you just ignore the story, and WBOS have given us an absolutely ‘Phantastic’ show here.  Far better than an amateur group deserves to be, they’ve set the standard high for the next group who tries to take it on.  Running until 4th May, book now to see a talented group confidently bring this musical to the stage once more, and hopefully its run will change perceptions of this show, which stands among Webber’s best works, flaws and all.

Performance runtime 2 hours 35 minutes including interval. Love Never Dies runs at the Wolverhampton Grand until Saturday 4th May 2024.

Reviewer: Rob Bartley

Reviewed: 1st May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.