As the husband of a social worker, I sometimes find myself in strange situations, such as Row J of the Capitol Theatre in Horsham, sitting between two middle-aged couples; a single man, on his own, out to enjoy a bit of amateur musical theatre. I was just glad I wasn’t wearing my corduroy sport coat; that would have pushed me passed the edge of plausible deniability.
I was there as part of an outing for one of the centres my wife manages, and to handle important tasks such as holding doors, minding handbags while people went to the loo and making awkward conversation with people who are meeting me, once again, for the first time. But as a bonus, I got to see the Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s presentation of Oklahoma! (The exclamation point is in the title, I’m not that excited.)
The play was surprisingly spectacular, taking into account, of course, that it was a local production. I mean, West End it wasn’t, but the company did manage the nearly impossible challenge of staging a believable version of a Broadway extravaganza while simultaneously retaining those special qualities only an amateur production can offer: wobbling scenery, props descending from above onto the head of an extra, a “Dirty Dancing” lift that nearly ended in disaster. So, yeah, it was a great performance.
When I booked the ticket last week, I asked the woman behind the counter if it was the sing-along version. She smiled politely at my joke and assured me it wasn’t, to which I replied, “It will be when I’m there.” I needn’t have bothered, the audience—most of whom looked as if they had attended the premiere of Oklahoma! and may have needed to hire a babysitter in order to get out for the evening—unabashedly sang along, even though the cast needed no help in that arena. Too bad no one in the audience could dance.
When you’re putting on shows in the West End, you get to pick from the most talented performers in the world. When you put on a show in Horsham, however, you’re fishing in a much smaller pool, so I expect the casting sessions went somewhat like this: “You have the physical qualities we’re looking for in our leading lady. Can you sing? Good, good! Can you dance? Um, okay, …can you fake it?”
The group, after all, is the Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic—not Dance—Society, so I’m willing to cut them some slack. And the singing was suburb; bold, confident, occasionally complex; it resonated through the auditorium. On the other hand, the dance routines, to be kind, lacked finesse. It looked as if some of the cast had taken a few years of ballet when they were younger and had spent half an hour or so teaching the others what little they still remembered. In addition to the near-catastrophic lift, there was an ill-advised “spin and carry” sort of move that looked like a form of torture. I also noticed a few “rabbit in the high-beams” type of looks I recalled from my own dancing days, as players struggled to remember where in the routine they were. And I swear I could see a few of them counting out the beats, one of my favourite tricks.
But confident or not, they performed with enthusiasm, and made up for it in the singing. The final number, the aptly named “Oklahoma!” sung by the ironically-named “Curly” and supported by the entire ensemble, was rousing, energetic and well-polished.
And they stayed true to the original production, even when it did them no favors. In the scene where the townsfolk rouse Curly and Laurey from their marriage bed (no spoiler alerts here; I assume you all know the story), Curly comes out of the house wearing only his trousers, which allowed us all to see the rest of the gear involved in those cunning little stage microphones you see taped to people’s faces. If they had updated it at bit, say had Laurey come out dressed as a Police Constable and Curly in a set of Winnie-the-Pooh jammies (“Have you been in Kanga’s honey-pot, Pooh? You’re such a naughty bear!”) it would have avoided the awkwardness of revealing the tape and wire strung around his torso.
What impressed me most, however, was something I didn’t even realize until my wife mentioned it on the way home: they all spoke in American accents. The fact I didn’t notice shows how good they were. A bad accent or, worse, a local accent (“I say Jud, old bean, you’re not sweet on this Laurey girl, are you? If so, you’re in for a thrashing.”) would have been immediately noticeable.
I have a great respect for Brits who can do an American accent. I’ve been here eight years and the best I can do is mimic the Cockney accent perpetrated by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but that doesn’t really count.
So my hat is off the HAODS for their talent, tenacity and theatrical flair. But the dancing, really, a bit more energy next time, okay?