November 04, 2011

Parade, Southwark Playhouse

5 stars

Cast of Parade

Seeing Parade for what is now the third time, I firmly believe that this 1998 musical is set to be a classic. In 100 years’ time, I am confident that Jason Robert Brown’s musical will be performed across the globe and will still hold the inescapable power that it does now. With one of the finest scores in musical theatre, thoughtfully written roles, and a true story that simultaneously throws up issues about the society of the time, our timeless capacity to judge others, and the power and powerlessness of love, it is conventionally everything a good musical should be – but with an element that’s harder to diagnose: the power to make grown men weep at its closure.

Thom Southerland’s exquisite production at the Southwark Playhouse is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen and, more specifically, one of the best examples of top-notch direction. While Parade was originally conceived as a large-scale show, Southerland proves here that the small-mindedness of Atlanta, Georgia is best encapsulated in the dingy enclosures of a railway arch where a brilliant small ensemble come together to clinch the fate of Leo Frank, the Jewish man wrongly accused of murdering a child.

Every moment in this production has been thought-through and makes for a production with no excess flesh. A table that needs to be carried off beautifully morphs into a coffin; the galleries at each end of the long space are used for civic scenes with speeches and to drape proud but grimy Star Spangled Banners from, and consequently scenes shift seamlessly from floor to gallery with no interruption. The ensemble is clearly a hundred per cent committed to their director’s vision, executing each scene crisply and with enormous passion. The chorus singing makes your ears glow red and the experience of being a part of this patriotic yet poignantly misguided – and at times grotesque – society is both thrilling and unbearable.

Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford are exceptional in the lead roles of Leo and Lucille Frank. Brookshaw brilliantly captures the obsessive side to Leo’s personality – his need for routine, for order, for control – which means that, even pre-prison, Leo is like a glass ornament in the midst of an erupting volcano. Pitt-Pulford as his young, but downtrodden wife brings out Lucille’s sense of humour and unconditional love for her husband, in spite of his flaws and prudishness. Her vocals are superbly controlled and she achieves a magical combination of desperation and dignity in both her singing and admirably subtle acting. One of the most powerful moments in the production is Lucille’s observation of her flailing husband being tried as she stands in the balcony of the courtroom, simultaneously a ghost, who can enforce no change, and an angel of goodness, promising her husband moral support through her determined gaze.

There is excellent support in the production in particular from Terry Doe, Samuel J. Weir, Mark Inscoe and Samantha Seager, and a small, but strident band that fit the space beautifully.

I will be watching Thom Southerland’s career with interest. Here is a director who, at a young age, has a superb eye for detail, commits himself wholeheartedly to a conception, and brings out the best in his actors and musicians. His production here is stylish, coherent and adventurous – yet, crucially, entirely in keeping with the show’s essence. For those who have seen this production, Southerland’s decision about how to stage the climax was one of the most original, tasteful and heart-wrenching moments I’ve seen on stage. Let’s hope that London’s fringe scene continues this brilliant example that he has set.
Lucille and Leo Frank


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