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The Theatre Channel: Episode 3: The Rock Episode

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Choreographer and Director: Bill Deamer 

Three episodes in and The Theatre Channel has become increasingly confident in the relationship between song selection and artist, giving performers the chance to try something new and that audiences may not have seen. The Rock Episode is thematically strong, drawing together work from Rent, Chess and even a French-Canadian work Starmania but with its more homogeneous music video approach, you may find it is your least favourite edition so far.

Staging has been important in each of the previous episodes; the first played with the Theatre Café space to take the viewer to unexpected areas of the building from the roof to the front door on St Martin’s Lane, while the Halloween special was a triumph of design and storytelling, transforming the performance area into woods and crypts to give a spooky overtone to an episode that enhanced the storytelling in each of the musical numbers.

The Rock Episode employs some digital effects but the variation between the seven performances is visually less distinctive. There is exposed rigging, paper lit in various colours and lots of smoke effects through which the singers walk, emote and emphatically gesticulate to camera but the consistency in staging makes it harder for the audience to connect with the changing songs and the stories behind them. And when combined with the repeated use of synthesisers across Michael England’s composition, it gives several of the performances an 80s Top of the Pops feel.

Shan Ako has the best of the episode with her version of I’ll Cover You (Reprise) from Rent and it is the only performance that the viewer can really get lost in as Ako sings across the music. It is simply staged with backing from regulars the Café Four, but Ako offers a beautiful range and feeling in her voice, a softness that slides to something far more intense as the vocal quality and direction of the song builds.

In their quest to include a wider variety of musical numbers, Acid Queen from Tommy is performed with verve by Aisha Jawando who throws herself into the number, seductively dancing to camera and exploring the distortion effect of the higher notes to create her slightly unnerving and intimidating character. Chess also makes an appearance – most recently revived over the road from the Theatre Café at the London Coliseum – with John-Owen Jones lending fine voice to Pity the Child while Francesca Jackson performs a sincere version of Forgiven from Jagged Little Pill.

Rob Houchen gets to venture outside for his imploring and defiant version of Gethsemene from Jesus Christ Superstar on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery piazza although the all-white costume is more peak Westlife than last days of the Messiah. Houchen lands the song’s extraordinary range with ease but with such a memorable production in Regent’s Park in August, this version is overshadowed by the heartbreakingly resigned interpretation of co-Jesuses Declan Bennett and Pepe Nufrio.

The big sell of Episode three is the inclusion of Le Monde est Stone performed by Alex Gaumond in the original French along with a brief interview with the singer and writer Luc Plamondon discussing the origins of Starmania. Usually sung by a female vocalist (with versions released by Cyndi Lauper and Celine Dion) Gaumond has a rare chance to offer his own moody interpretation.

This latest edition of The Theatre Channel places far more emphasis on the style of the performances than the storytelling potential of each song, and while there is no doubting the quality of the singers or the thoughtful consideration given to which numbers to include, something is missing this time around. But with a festive special on the cards for next month, The Theatre Channel is sure to lift our spirits when we need it most.

Available here  

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