West Side Story, review: EODS, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, until November 17

Well over a century old now, EODS need have no fears for its future.

Friday, 15th November 2019, 5:46 pm
West Side Story
West Side Story

The future is already here. At the Devonshire Park Theatre, a youthful, talented and vibrant company delivers an absolutely sensational West Side Story this week.

Of the 32-strong cast, just two are aged over 25. This story of young love, headstrong passion and driving emotions needs the impulsive energy of youth. But it also makes phenomenal demands on acting ability, vocal strength and physicality – and director Sarah Dormady coaxes every ounce from the youngsters.

The end result is breathtaking – in all senses. In number after riveting number, the immaculate high-octane choreography never flags for an instant, the vocals have power as well as beauty and richness, and the acting simply speaks truth.

Bernstein’s 1957 work was groundbreaking in musical theatre. No saccharin, no coy and cutesy romances, no whimsy. The re-imagined tale of Romeo and Juliet is re-set in gritty, grimy New York – and its themes are still uncannily relevant. Racism, and a fractured society, persist in Trump’s America. Turf wars, knife crime and senseless murder horribly grip London streets, not 50 miles from here.

The set design – not credited in the programme – is all dark scaffolding with shadowy corners and great scope for Doug Morgan’s intelligent lighting. One inspired spot, as Tony and Maria rehearse their marriage in One Hand One Heart, piercingly picks out a scaffolding joint in the image of a crucifix. So much detail in production values – you really need to watch this show two or three times to catch it all.

Against this bleak and glowering background, the Jets and the Sharks face each other menacingly down. From the very opening number, the ensemble is flawless and stunningly assured. It is street dance with all the arrogance, all the controlled testosterone of youth waiting to explode. If Matthew Bourne watched this lot, he would sign them up on the spot (current director permitting!).

And Bernstein’s very modern, angular music is just as expertly delivered. Challenging harmonies and strong sustained lines, whose range is also very demanding, are delivered with clarity and confidence. Vocal coach Adam Hoskins clearly has sky-high standards, and the performers match them. From the pit, Carl Greenwood and his players are utterly professional: this is a show where the orchestra leads rather than follows.

It’s also a show full of acting scope. As well as Tony and Maria – yes, we will come to them – there are super characterisations everywhere, sorry, too many to mention all. Arlie Gurney’s Riff hovers between wisdom and aggressive leadership of the Jets, vainly restraining Oliver Menzies’ burningly impetuous Action. Opposite them, Tom McGovern infuses the Sharks’ leader Bernado with a knowing, risque intelligence. You know it will end in tragedy...

Katie Hillyer is a feisty Anybody’s, Max Jones a sinister Chino, and Mabel Lewis a lyrical Velma. As Anita, the foil and confidante to Maria, Amy Searle has arguably the best supporting role in the show, and she delivers it with absolute perfection, down to the last strut and toss of the head.

All the boys play up gloriously in the Officer Krupke number, that slightly incongruous comic interlude from the mischievous pen of a young Stephen Sondheim. The actual Officer Krupke is an amusingly long-suffering Ollie Price. And in the other adult roles, Clem Jackson nicely brings world-weary gravitas to the role of Doc, while Nathan Charman has a brusquely unforgiving edge as Lt Schrank.

So to the star-crossed lovers. The impressive Will Hopkins plays Tony as a sincere, almost hapless suitor, and his warm, resonant voice has a maturity beyond his years. Lizzie Baker is just the perfect Maria: naive, sensitive, endearing and passionate. She sings with beautiful expression and she expertly reaches the very high vocal lines. Plainly dressed, and in flats not heels, she wins every ounce of our sympathy. And over Tony’s body we weep with her.

Relatives, you will have to congratulate your charges at the stage door, because boldly, and in deference to the original Broadway production, Sarah Dormady dispenses with curtain calls. Instead, her company leaves us with the devastating tableau of youth in death, and we rise from our seats moved and shaken, as well as stunningly entertained. That is what theatre does. Well done, EODS: this show is a triumph.

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