REVIEW: An Officer and a Gentleman

02
May
2018

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REVIEW: An Officer and a Gentleman – The Mayflower

Richard Gere may not have big feet but he has big shoes to fill when it comes to playing the role of Zack Mayo, the trainee US Navy pilot in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’. Gere made the part his own in the 1982 big screen film written by Douglas Day Stewart, which featured the iconic hit ‘Up Where We Belong’, flashy white uniforms and the gritty determination to make it through a gruelling 12 week programme against the backdrop of austerity, love, ambition and dysfunctional families. Who can forget that romantic, hero-sweeps-girl-into-his-arms ending?

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Adapting to the stage version takes a while as we become accustomed to the different faces, clever sets appearing and disappearing from every direction, powerful and very familiar songs, cleverly projected digital imagery and amazing lighting all working together.

We are taken seamlessly from the Aviator Academy to the soul-less Pensacola factory, from bars, motels, dining scenes, to big skies and surf backgrounds. Occasionally the scene changes are in danger of upstaging the storyline and the central mobile stairway to nowhere is a little disconcerting: why are they climbing those stairs when we all know they don’t go anywhere (most of the time).

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The stage musical is brought to us by the same writer as the film and the plot, such as it is, remains unaltered: Mayo, played well by Jonny Fines (fresh from his West End role in Annie) arrives with the other recruits for the start of their training to be US Navy pilots. Mayo obviously has something to prove to himself, his alcoholic father and dead mother and nurses an attitude as big as his motorbike.

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He and co-trainee Sid (played by Ian McIntosh, who in my mind would have actually made a better Zack) immediately pair off with local girls Paula (Emma Williams) and Lynette (Jessica Daley). Both work in the local factory and experience the typically austere, humdrum lives the women of that era and area had, so much so that Lynette is determined to escape by marrying a pilot – any pilot, so long as he is in a uniform.

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Enter the well pressed Gunnery Sergeant Emile Foley, whose practiced task it is to transform raw recruits into officer material and fighter pilots of the future. He achieves this through a combination of bullying, cajoling, threatening, throwing them in at the deep end (literally) and the occasional sideways compliment.

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(“Only two things come out of Oklahoma…”)

He fails to break Mayo, of course, but is always there to collect another few scalps as the weak fall by the wayside and drop out.

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Another iconic role from the film (originally played by the intimidating Louis Gossett Jnr), Foley represents the figure of authority who barks his way through the whole show. In the hands of Ray Shell, Foley is a real, dominating character and Shell manages the tricky job of bringing out his well-hidden human side.

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No spoiler alerts, but the rest inevitably builds and leads up to THAT ending which, despite the PA requests not to, has people standing in the auditorium. In fact the pre-show PA announcement includes a warning of ‘partial nudity’ and ‘adult themes’. I saw a lot worse in Miss Saigon, frankly.

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Star of the evening for me is undoubtedly the talented Emma Williams in the lead role of Paula: a powerhouse of a voice, the girl who seems to be able to do it all so effortlessly. She can sing, dance, act and show off a spectrum of emotions from anger to lust, from sadness to joy. Her scenes with Zack and her mother are particularly touching and, boy, does she do justice to those powerful songs.

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The supporting cast works equally well as an ensemble and director Nikolai Foster, along with choreographer Kate Prince, have worked hard to fill the stage through skillful use of dance, space and atmosphere.

The eight-piece orchestra/rock band, under the supervision of Sarah Travis and leadership of Michael Riley, belt out those songs we know so well – a reworked ‘Kids in America’, Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ have been added to the memorable and catchy ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, ‘St Elmo’s Fire’, ‘The Final Countdown’ and, yes, ‘Up Where We Belong’. There is enough straight dialogue, though, not to force the cast into telling the story entirely in song, which for me strikes a good balance. Opera, this isn’t.

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So the story is flimsy, the plot flaky and most definitely corny, but what of it? This is a spectacular show with the feel-good, key ingredients of a love story on steroids. For those who favour crisp white uniforms shown off to full effect by brilliant blue-white spotlights, this Curve stage production must have one of the most complex and effective lighting plots ever (brilliant stuff, Ben Cracknell); if there is a dimming of lights in your house tonight, it is probably the drain on the grid as The Mayflower stage uses more local wattage than a Mother Ship. Even the finale/line-up features a pincushion effect of blue and white light onto the auditorium worthy of any good laser show.

The occasional missed spotlight mark and silhouetted backstage crew don’t for one moment get in the way of this remarkably enjoyable romantic stage musical. The fight sequences are a little too balletic to be really convincing but it’s detail.

I have no doubt that the exhausting UK and Ireland tour which started in Leicester to full houses and doesn’t finish until September will pack them in, and rightly so. ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ runs at The Mayflower until Saturday 5th May. Buy tickets here

David Cradduck