Comrade Rockstar – Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford
Comrade Rockstar was performed in concert at the Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford.
Rating: five stars *****
Having previously been workshopped at drama schools across the UK across a period of
some ten years, the complete performance in concert of Julian Woolford and Richard John's
Comrade Rockstar at the Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford was long overdue. Inspired
by the life of Dean Reed, the American singing sensation who achieved fame in Latin America
and subsequently the Eastern bloc in a career spanning three decades prior to his death
in 1986, the show pushes forward the boundaries of the biographical musical in its
creative blend of fact and fiction.
All of the principal characters of Comrade Rockstar, which include Reed's three wives
and daughter, have their basis in real life, as does the narrative around which the
show is framed: the recounting of the eponymous artist's career through the prism of
the television documentary for
that ultimately precipitated his demise. But much of the finer detail represents an
artistic reimagining of Reed's life story on the part of bookwriter Woolford, an ironic
spin on the mythologising that inevitably accrues around any celebrity of pop culture.
In a welcome move, Richard John's original score resists adopting the well-worn route
of recycling Reed's songs. Instead, it pastiches a range of styles, from teen idol pop
ballads to 1960s rock to hard rock, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next to
mirror Reed's own musical journey through the years. Within the context of the resulting
pop score, John skilfully interweaves some alluring melodic writing for the range of
instruments of the show's superb five-piece pit band, including cello and flute, such
that the electric guitars, keyboards and drums are not simply allowed to take over.
The musical's breakaway number is undoubtedly its title song, 'Comrade Rockstar'
('Comrade' being pronounced as in American or Russian, to rhyme with 'add' rather than 'raid').
Featuring at the end of Act I, the number quickly becomes fixed in the minds of the
audience by virtue of its ideal combination of John's carefully crafted melodic hooks
and Woolford's catchy lyrics. But the most ingenious writing in Comrade Rockstar is
saved for its climax: having fallen out of public favour, Reed, front and centre stage,
appeals to the succession of female characters who have graced his life, heralding an
extended sequence of reprises of the music with which they were previously associated.
The show's company combined West End stars and Guildford School of Acting alumni, staff,
and students, resulting in a fantastic semi-staged performance under Woolford's proficient
direction (that many of the artists were reading unobtrusively from study scores proved
no obstacle to its enjoyment). Tim Howar embraced the title role with exceptional gusto
and professionalism, more so given that he had taken over the part just five days previously
owing to the indisposition of another cast member.
Kim Ismay stood out for her wit-infused interpretation of the character of Countess
Nyta Dover, and Lucy Schaufer portrayed Reed's forsaken mother, Ruth, with sincerity and
conviction. Katherine Kingsley radiated charisma as the sultry documentary-maker Pheme,
while Andrew Conaghan, as Reed's onetime singer-songwriter partner Johnny, held his own
commendably alongside Howar. Other noteworthy performances included Nicola Blackman as
Reed's confidante Dixie, as well as Caroline Sheen, Yvette Robinson, and Orla Gormley
(whose involvement with the show extends back to the first workshop in 2006) as Reed's
wives Patti, Wiebke, and Renate, respectively.
Several GSA Faculty were to be found within the cast: Phyllida Crowley-Smith admirably
brought to life the characterful role of Reed's acting teacher and political mentor Tilley,
while Trevor Rawlins and Sean McNamara delivered endearing cameos. Recent GSA graduate
Hannah Price shone as Reed's daughter Ramona in Act II. The onstage chorus of GSA students
provided effective, if occasionally tentative, backing vocals throughout, and several
of its members performed fine turns in minor roles, notably Bradley Judge, Cameron Potts
and Javier Caberiz.
If I were permitted to make one recommendation for the future, it would be that since
Act I lasted a protracted 90 minutes with Act II less than half as long, a rebalancing
between the two may serve better to manage audience expectations. That notwithstanding,
Comrade Rockstar represents an excellent contribution to new musical theatre,
and one that I hope will soon receive the more extended performance run in fully staged
form that it unquestionably warrants.