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South East
posted/updated: 04 Jul 2014 -
The Other School
Book by Dougal Irvine and Dominic Marsh, Music and Lyrics by Dougal Irvine
society/company: GSA - Guildford School of Acting (student productions) (directory)
performance date: 03 Jul 2014
venue: The Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford GU1 3UT
reviewer/s: Raymond Langford Jones (Sardines review)

Photos: Steve Porter

How refreshing it is to welcome a brand new musical into the fold - and one with a completely original, thought-provoking book, too. First successfully presented a year ago by NYMT at the St James Theatre, The Other School has subsequently been taken up and published by R&H Theatricals Europe. This is the first outing for the show under the new licensing banner, performed brilliantly this week by GSA's second-year Musical Theatre students.

No wonder R&H saw the potential, for this is an ideal show for young companies, especially colleges and older school students, being a tuneful, well-written book - that can be simply staged. That is, if you have the imagination of this particular team: Stephen Dexter (Director), Rachel Kerridge (Choreographer) and Dougal Irvine himself as MD.

As you’d expect, the show is about a school. But not any ordinary school. When brother and sister, Kester and Polly, find themselves in a new institution, they can’t quite make out what is odd about it. It seems to have the same bossy teachers, rules and regulations as any other, yet… We slowly get to understand that all the students here are dead, and that Kester, in fact, was the victim of a horrendous road accident. Polly is still alive. On tackling the formidable Head (T’Shan Williams-Waithe) Polly is given a pass which will allow her to go back to reality when she wants. She confides in the wise and candid Scottish caretaker (Gant McConvey) who facilitates her entrance to the 'Other' side and advises her to get away and remain 'living'.

With its resonances from both classic mythology as well as stories from other musicals - Irvine admits he’s a fan of Our House, and I couldn’t help also of thinking of the spiritual elements in Carousel, which I’d just seen again at The Arcola. You leave the theatre asking many questions. Is this just a dream, part of Polly’s coming to terms with the trauma, depression and - for her own reasons - guilt following her brother’s death, or do we just accept the story totally on its own terms? Ah, but that’s the magic of theatre! We aren’t given all the answers; we have to do some of the work ourselves. And this becomes a deeply personal show. As an older person who has lost all my family by now, I certainly came away pondering about what is left for us to cling on to when loved ones pass on. Polly gains an understanding of the importance of making the most of our time here, but the people we care about who we can see no more still remain within us. A cliché ok. But we need such clichés to get us through.

Virginia Kerr’s Polly is in almost every scene and carries the show along with emerging star quality. But this was very much an ensemble piece and there was not a dud performance anywhere. I especially enjoyed the scenes with Polly’s contemporaries in the real world. The writers got a lot of fun out of the catty trio of school bullies, and there was an engaging performance from Danny Lane as the boy who takes a shine to her. Annabel Roberts as the sibling’s mother sang with feeling and maturity, too.

There’s a great deal of movement in the show, which was cleverly staged, with much imaginative use of wooden frames that became anything from props to scenery as required. And there were many innovative choreographic ideas which the second-year students had perfected to a high standard. Irvine’s pleasing and varied score had generally been reduced to a keyboard and guitar, which served the production well and enabled every word of the clever lyrics to be heard without resorting to technology.

Congratulations to everyone involved!

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