To reach The Vaults performance space you venture down the graffiti tunnel at Leake Street, then into one of the arches and through an unsteady route to the bar.
Bare: a Pop Opera isn’t on in the theatre, but instead in an extension of the bar space with a long stage in the shape of a T. From my section, the ‘red’ seats (the perks of the press), there isn’t much turning required to see everything, but the cheaper ‘yellow’ section must miss bits or see a lot of backs of heads.
So, settling down on a plastic chair with the rumble of trains passing from Waterloo, the set I see is simple – religious paintings, chairs, a tree. The lights are purple, there are church chants. We’re in a Catholic school with teenagers about to graduate – Peter, Jason, Ivy, Matt, Nadia and others.
Over the next two and a half hours we watch them pray, party, fall in love, struggle with their identities, and eventually deal with the catastrophe of a loss they can only just comprehend.
Songs (by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo) and scenes stand out – Nadia, a little large, who wants to be pretty (she is, reminding me of Mama Cass); Peter, trying to confide in his mum over the phone (“his father will die … where was the warning?”); Matt, who loves Ivy, but she looks right through him: Ivy, outwardly confident but “only a girl”; and Jason, our Romeo who wants things “best kept secret”.
There’s the sister, too (Stacy Francis), appearing in a dream like a Supreme as the Virgin Mary, then reminding Peter that as conflicted and ashamed as he may be for loving another boy, “God don’t make no trash”. The priest is less helpful, preaching doctrine that it is best “not to question”.
This show has had a long genesis – it debuted in 2000 in Los Angeles and eventually evolved into Bare: the Musical in 2012. The original version, which we see here at The Vaults, feels timeless, without the clutter of social media or the opening out of the book.
Bare: a Pop Opera is almost completely sung-through, with more than thirty songs of different types. For me, the second act was stronger with less ensemble numbers (the sound in the venue is a problem with multiple singers), but there are fine performances throughout.
The use of Romeo and Juliet as a framing device, the end-of-term play, gives a chance for the Queen Mab speech to be incorporated, and the suicide by poison, this time for the love of a boy.
Parallels with Spring Awakening feel inevitable, but I feel that had a more focused book throughout (although Bare, with its tree and pictures of children who struggled too long with their sexuality and perceptions of others, has the more emotional ending).
Julie Atherton’s direction makes the most of the stage space available – although there is at least one scene change that drags – and in the cast there are several young names to watch: Daniel Mark Shand (Peter), Georgie Lovatt (Nadia), Tom Hier (Matt) especially impressed me, but the whole cast are good.
Bare: a Pop Opera continues at The Vaults until 4 August.
Photo credits – Tom Grace.