Review by Harry Bower
What must it be like to grow up queer at a time in which the world is seemingly coming around to the idea that your identity should be celebrated, only to attend a school in which you are oppressed? Before tonight, I had no answer to that question. Until, that is, I took my seat at VAULT Festival for The Phase, a brand new coming-of-age musical about four teenagers in their battle against authority.
The story begins at an all-girl Catholic school in 2014, just as same-sex marriage has been legalised in England. Our cast are members of a band who perform a song at their school concert about two women in love, creating outrage and resulting in a shutdown mid-song. This creates a chain reaction of negative interactions between students and the school establishment in which the band are refused access to their rehearsal space until they apologise. Choosing instead to fight back, the show primarily focuses on the dichotomy between their reality and their authority figures’ homophobia and intolerance. But it’s also about friendship, loyalty, gender identity, the lack of control we all experienced growing up, and the hypocrisy of our society. Oh, and sexy teachers.
The Phase is blessed by some genuinely beautiful and complex characters and relationships. Aziza is the band’s lead singer and the friendship group’s most direct and headstrong member. She is a confident fifteen-year-old lesbian in a relationship with Rowan – the band’s guitarist. Struggling with their gender Rowan is insecure and perpetually nervous, but funny and playful when around their closest friends and it sometimes feels as though the show revolves around them. Sage is the band’s pianist and also queer, portrayed as the classic geeky kid we all knew at school, but with an air of coolness most geeks could only dream about. Ava is the band’s drummer – and the straight ally of the group. Bold, loyal, often putting her foot in it but fundamentally good, Ava is a grounding character who acts as a bit of a guiding light toward the end, fortunately not in a straight-saviour way.
Some musicals ironically suffer from poor song writing. It is a complete delight to experience a new British musical with both a catchy and structurally sophisticated score that matches its quick, witty and emotionally intelligent book pound for pound. The soundtrack ranges from toe-tapping (Time To Shine and Teacher’s Pet) to downright show-stopping (The Sex Talk and The Argument). There is a quality to the writing that momentarily suspends belief that this is a fringe show; a show without a huge budget and without seasoned musical theatre writers at the helm. When you contextualise it, this makes the emotional writing in Changing Room Talk and Broken Guitar feel all the more special. These are songs rooted firmly in reality with honesty and vulnerability at their core. And they are ridiculously catchy. I mean seriously, I cannot stop singing ‘I’m frustratedddd, and I hateee itttt’. Please. Send help.
The cast are each convincing and lovable, and that none of them stand out as a show-stealer is not an indictment on their performance but more an achievement; they compliment each other beautifully. As Aziza, Jocasta Almgill provides the necessary stoicism and stiff upper lip required without ever having their walls up to the audience, mixing up her delivery at various points in the very pacy script to believably reflect deep feeling. Ashley Goh is brave in their portrayal of Rowan, needing to be remarkably vulnerable in some of the only solo scenes in the piece, a challenge they pull off with ease.
Gracie McGonigal plays Ava, with a winning grin and knowing sense of humour, she gives her character a refreshingly self-aware personality which doesn’t feel cliché despite acting for much of show as the light relief character. And finally, Holly Ryan plays the geeky and very much under pressure Sage. Without spoilers, Ryan gets one of the most shocking scenes in the piece for the audience, and this is one small part her complex and layered performance which conjures up more questions and inspires a desire in me to explore Sage’s back story.
With melisma and flourishes peppered amongst strong harmonies, delivered by distinct and powerful voices, the vocal work in this show is of a very high standard. The music itself is delivered by a talented group in a restrictive setup, I can only imagine what this musical would sound like in a less cavernous space with a bigger budget and more musicians to play with. There is room for improvement in the blocking, set, pacing, sound design and more, but honestly half of these things are fixed in a more flexible venue with investment, something I hope this show gets.
Joy. That is the overwhelming emotional feeling I had heading home. This show is jam-packed with heart, angst, sass and cheekiness. I wanted to spend my entire evening with these four relatable individuals and their funny quirks, sarcastic personalities, and lovable insecurities. Stories about young people are rarely told by young people themselves. Stories about queer young people and their recent experiences at school are even more rare. The Phase is a story everyone should to see, if for no other reason than you can say you saw it before it was famous. To any producers out there wondering what your next project might be? These writers, this cast, this show, would be a pretty great place to start.
The Phase continues its debut run at VAULT Festival until Sunday 12 March. For more information and to buy tickets visit: https://vaultfestival.com/events/the-phase/.
Keep up to date with the show’s development here: https://twitter.com/thephasemusical