Image of the Phantom taken mid-performance.

Inside my mind: A Phantom review

Content warning: death/murder

In the stillness of a dark Keble O’Reilly theatre, you sit silently in your seat, waiting for “a little illumination”. Bang! A chandelier swings towards you. Fireworks explode. Lights flash and fire sprouts across the room. You are plunged into the depths of a haunted Paris Opera House, and you are strapped in for a wild ride.

Stellate Productions, led by co-directors Jak Spencer and Tom Freeman alongside producer Finley Bettsworth, have achieved a whopping feat of five completely sold-out shows with their production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Facing the task of transforming the Keble O’Reilly Theatre into the Paris Opera House, I must deeply commend the cast, crew and band involved in producing an exceptional rendition of this haunting musical.

As a musician, writer and performer, I’ve had the pleasure of being an audience member, a reviewer, and everything from a cast member to band and crew. I’ve grown to appreciate the work it takes to put on a production, especially when you’re all just students trying to balance your hobbies with a degree. You need so many dedicated, enthusiastic and talented people to make it work – even more than that to make it excel. I have never seen a show sell out completely (never mind before the first show had even started), and I have also never seen a standing ovation on the opening night (as shows tend to get better the more they’re performed). The great reception alone demonstrates how impressive of a show this was, but there are so many more things to praise in addition.

This was my first time seeing the musical, so in a nutshell, The Phantom of the Opera follows the story of the creepy Opera Ghost (or Phantom) who haunts the Paris Opera House. He forces the singers, dancers and managers of the opera house to follow his demands, which eventually include staging his very own opera and replacing the star soprano Carlotta with a chorus girl called Christine, whom he has fallen in love with. The tradition of opera is important context, as featuring celebrity singers was key to marketing and driving the popularity of opera house productions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The star of the show was, quite fittingly, Declan Ryder as the Phantom. He completely embodied the haunting character and genuinely shook me to my core with his dynamic vocal range and impeccable control. The shift between deliberate audible breaths, delicate wispy timbres and an intense, booming tone made the emotional state of his character palpable: even when off-stage, his voice resonated so clearly and eerily inside all of our minds. I’m still not quite sure if I was meant to feel sorry for Ryder’s character, but the intricacies of his expression as an actor definitely stirred many emotions in me. Having seen him play very different characters previously, I was thoroughly impressed by his skill set.

Alongside this fabulous portrayal of the Phantom, Chloe Cameron as Christine was heart-wrenching: her passionate duets with Raoul (played by James Pearson) were skillfully executed by both actors, and her expressions while interacting with the Phantom were impressively intense. Eleanor Bogie as the prima donna Carlotta was also incredibly well played, and she completely embodied the hilariously dramatic, overly confident and entitled nature of the stereotypical opera diva alongside her equally as funny Ubaldo (played by Louisa Woolley). The wonderfully silly opera managers Andre and Firmin (played by Christian Goodwin and Kayvan Gharbi respectively) further contributed to the comedic elements of the musical with their charm and wit.

Many of the finer details of this show enhanced the experience for me. The ensemble was incredibly tight-knit, and alongside quite a large cast, they made the show feel a lot more lively and dramatic with their dedication and enthusiasm. I particularly appreciated two of the ensemble members who used pointe shoes during a ballet dance – a small but very nice touch. Rebekah Devlin as Meg Giry was particularly impressive with her strong singing voice and intense expression, her lines still ringing in my ears as I write.

The staging and lighting were also vital to the show’s overall wow factor in a notoriously difficult venue. I was not expecting to see (what looked like) fireworks and fire-like bursts of light coming out of the Phantom’s hands in addition to some very effective use of flashing lights, dry ice and fog machines. The flying chandelier was a bold prop that probably deserved to be its own character with how essential it was to the plot, and I also found that the use of different levels of staging – from the balcony, to underneath and behind the curtains, to a boat protruding from the side of the stage, to a high side window and the very top box – made for a very visually engaging watch.

My only critique of this production (besides a few technical hiccups) is the fact that the orchestra was hidden behind a curtain. Hearing a live 20-person orchestra (with some members doubling instruments) is a fabulous experience and something to be proud of, but tucking them away out of sight completely detracted from their talent and made it feel like a pre-recorded track was being played instead. Perhaps there was a reason for this that I’m missing, and maybe the whole film track vibe was intended, but it did feel like a real shame to have the cast point to a black curtain during the bows instead of to the band. There were also a few moments where the band and singers were ever so slightly out of sync and tune, which I imagine would be easily remedied by removing the curtain (as you really can’t expect people to play together when they can’t see or properly hear each other). The orchestra sounded amazing and was properly microphoned and mixed to produce a lovely, even, rich sound that resonated throughout the venue. I must credit Joe Waymouth, the musical director, for not only bringing together such a grand orchestra – which included an actual harp, a bass clarinet, and a double bass – but for also keeping them together throughout a very music-heavy show. From the soaring string solos to the booming tuttis, the orchestra was an essential driving force that brought everything to life, and I hope their efforts have been properly appreciated.

Radio mics are a constant nightmare, but I think they could’ve done with some very slight tweaks. There was a slight imbalance in levels, so voices were occasionally suddenly loud or quiet with no plot relevance. Furthermore, there were a few moments of feedback, and all of the microphones seemed to completely cut out briefly in the middle of Act 2. These are minor things in the grand scheme of what ended up being a spectacular show, and I was very impressed by the sound mix. The balance issues seemed to have settled by Act 2, which in comparison to Act 1 sounded a lot better and well-rehearsed.

The striking thing about this show is the genuine emotional rollercoaster it takes you on, and the cast portrayed this unbelievably well. One minute you’re laughing and the next you’re struck to your core with fear as characters are killed off and thrown across the stage. I was extremely alarmed by the two instances of actors being hung on stage, in addition to a third fake body. Though the shock value was effective, I think a content warning should’ve probably been made clear for those unfamiliar with the plot. 

This production of The Phantom of the Opera was a rich blend of bold staging and talented performance which made for a thoroughly entertaining show. An additional Sunday matinee has now been announced: whether six shows in a row is overkill is up for debate, but I can certainly tell you that you’re missing out on one of the best student productions in Oxford if you haven’t been able to grab a ticket.

Image Credit: Photo by Emma Little