REVIEW: High-school students transport us to a boogie wonderland

A scene from the Duchess's High School production of the musical Disco Inferno at the Alnwick Playhouse.
A scene from the Duchess's High School production of the musical Disco Inferno at the Alnwick Playhouse.

Disco Inferno by Duchess’s High School, at Alnwick Playhouse, is on tonight until Saturday (7.30pm productions all sold out; limited tickets for Saturday’s 2pm matinee)

Alnwick is this week being transported back to a time of flares, cassette tape recorders, The Clangers, lava lamps, Charlie’s Angels, roller skates, the Bay City Rollers, space hoppers and, of course, disco.

All of the cast and half of the audience are now completely bemused, being too young to know what I’m on about!

Sadly, I remember the 1970s only too well – for me, they were about awkward school discos; long, hot summers (the summers were all long and hot in the ’70s, weren’t they?); platform shoes; and a crazy, eclectic mix of music that ranged from glam rock to punk. It was a wonderful time.

The amazingly-gifted students from the Duchess’s High School have captured the whole spirit of that era in their new musical, Disco Inferno.

It is the latest in a long line of brilliant productions, including Grease, Back to the ’80s and Return to the Forbidden Plant, not to mention the powerful autumn plays, notably last year’s Cyrano de Bergerac.

A scene from the Duchess's High School production of the musical Disco Inferno at the Alnwick Playhouse.

A scene from the Duchess's High School production of the musical Disco Inferno at the Alnwick Playhouse.

So, as usual, they had a colossal reputation to live up to and a lot riding on their shoulders as they embarked on the intense, 10-week rehearsal period.

But they boogied on down to the Playhouse with all the verve and energy required to encapsulate properly the excitement of a fast-changing world 40 years ago.

The musical is set in 1976 (now, that was a hot summer!) and is based loosely on Kit Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Jack is a barman at Duke’s nightclub, Disco Inferno. He dreams of making it big in the music business, just like his idol Heathcliff, but never quite makes it, instead ticking along uneventfully with his lass Jane and best friend Tom.

Everything is turned upside down when Jack meets mysterious Lady Marmalade, a femme fatale and associate of the Devil.

There were scenes and songs that could have been plucked from the West End or Broadway – they were that good.

In his drive to become a star, he makes a pact with her, trading his soul to fulfil his ambitions. He is an instant, international success, making appearances on radio and television shows, but pays for it by losing his devoted girlfriend. He then regrets his blinkered behaviour and yearns for a return to normality.

I was allowed into the first full dress-rehearsal on Monday evening and even without the full auditoriums that were to follow, the young cast created a joyous, yet, at times, tense atmosphere that encapsulated the decade sweetly.

Where do I start with the cast? There was barely a fluffed line, a missed dance move nor a bum note all night – quite amazing considering it was their first run-through in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Playhouse. There were a few technical hitches but nothing that could not be ironed out before curtain-up tonight.

There were scenes and songs that could have been plucked from the West End or Broadway – they were that good.

Amy Barrett as Jane in Disco Inferno.

Amy Barrett as Jane in Disco Inferno.

The drive for perfection comes from a dedicated directorial team, in particular Martin Allenby, director and school assistant head of English and drama, who demands nothing short of the best from his team, there is no room for slouches.

On stage, there were many stand-out acting, singing and dancing performances among a sizeable cast.

The confident and talented Harry Brierley (Jack) and the irrepressible Tyler Angus (Tom) were the mainstays – both have a big, big future ahead of them.

They delivered some great lines with a deft comedic touch. My favourite came from Harry as wannabe star Jack: “All my family’s in the business, even my sewing machine’s a singer!”

They both commanded the stage and switched effortlessly between pathos and laugh-out-loud frivolity, while taking on songs and dances from that most difficult of musical genres – disco. Their total engagement with the audience (me, in Monday’s case) was bliss to behold.

Harry had to tackle some difficult disco standards, among them, Boogie Nights (Heatwave), Blame It On The Boogie (The Jacksons), Boogie Wonderland (Earth, Wind and Fire) and Spirit in the Sky (I bet you can’t remember who sang that one!), while Tyler’s unbelievable acting ability shone through in his versions of Some Girls (Racey) and Kissing In The Back Row (The Drifters) – a poetry of movement and expressions.

These iconic dance tunes from the 1970s were studio creations and were never meant to be dragged out into a live environment. So huge credit must go to the vocalists and, above all, the band for producing such a genuine, authentic sound. Take a bow, too, musical directors Freya Stone and Richard Lyst.

The lads were not the only ones to shine as Amy Barrett (Jane) and Hannah Lamb (Kathy) stood tall alongside them. The subtle harmonies at the beginning of No More Tears: Enough is Enough (Donna Summer), giving way to power and control for the second half of the song swept me off my feet.

They made easy work of two solos – Hannah with Streetlife (Randy Crawford) and Amy’s raspy I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor) were worth the ticket money alone. If either of them fail to use their voices in their future careers, it will be a crime. Their acting, too, was effortless, Amy competing with Tyler for the Most Expressive award.

And there were so many other great renditions – Josey Donald’s Ballroom Blitz (Sweet) was indeed sweet and my favourite of the night – it will be received with rapturous applause. The way the band were involved at the start of the song (Are you ready, Luke? Ah huh...) was neat.

Dan Thomassen, assured and deliciously supercilious as Duke, did admirably with Crocodile Rock (Elton John) and Jess Field (the evil Lady Marmalade – “I’ve got places to go, people to condemn”) and Emily Hardy (Nicky Diablo) added some bite as they belted out Devil Gate Drive, a version that did Suzi Quatro proud. Jess’s Hot Stuff (Donna Summer) was another showstopper.

They were ably supported by Evie Mortimer (Maggie), whose I Love To Love (Tina Charles) was spot on, Matty Potts (Terry) and Lucy Stewart (Lily).

The principal dancers, Lexy Bee, Cora Drummond, Ella Paul, Daisy Hope, Vicky Robertson and Bea Barnes, were energetic, sultry and really got into the groove, along with the dozen-strong chorus, who coped well with a packed stage and complicated numbers. Jo Burn has excelled herself with some fantastic choreography.

An amazing uplifting medley for the finale sent me away with a spring in my step and a smile as broad as can be. I’ll be humming those tunes for days!

The aforementioned band, Funkestra, suitably bedecked in flares, shades, bandanas and funky gear comprised at least one member from each year group and they were conducted admirably by fellow student Emma Coleman. They have also worked extremely hard over the last 10 weeks to perfect their sound of the ’70s.

Finally, congratulations to the army of set designers, make-up artists, sound and lighting engineers, programme compilers and costume makers – they all contributed to make this a night to remember.

Disco Inferno was not entirely faultless at the dress-rehearsal stage but I can guarantee it will rank up there among the best High School musical before the week is out.

This is the last show for many of the senior actors, including the likes of Tyler, Harry, Hannah and Jess, but they depart with their heads held high after another job well done and good wishes ringing in their ears.

By the way, Spirit in the Sky was released by one-hit wonder Norman Greenbaum in 1969.

The Principles

Harry Brierley – Jack; Josey Donald – Heathcliffe; Tyler Angus – Tom; Dan Thomassen – Duke; Matty Potts – Terry; Amy Barrett – Jane; Hannah Lamb – Kathy; Evie Mortimer – Maggie; Jess Field – Lady Marmalade; Emily Hardy – Nicky Diablo; Lucy Stewart – Lily; Cerys Williams, Sophie Murray and Kirsty Hensleigh – Fallen Angels.

Chorus

Lexy Bee, Daisy Hope, Cora Drummond, Ella Paul, Vicky Robertson, Bea Barnes, Joe Bennett, Martin Latto, Oscar Wilson, Ethan Allan, Billy Swan, Leonie Douglas, Courtney Swain, Matilda Leng, Ellie Hamblett, Catherine Walker, Harriett Renner, Amber Brown.

Disco Inferno Band – Funkestra

Band Conductor – Emma Coleman; Drums – Jack Moody; Bass Guitar – Daniel Lyst; Guitar – Luke Cunningham; Keyboard 1 – Anthony Newman; Keyboard 2 – Sarah Walker; Tenor Sax – Rachel Stephenson; Alto Sax – Sam Murray; Trombone – Michael Head; Trumpet – Nick Wilson.

Directorial team

Director – Mr Martin Allenby; Assistant Director – Lindsay Manion; Choreography – Mrs Jo Burn; Musical Director – Miss Freya Stone and Richard Lyst; Associate Musical Director – Miss Niamh Callanan; Musical Arrangement and Band Co-ordinator – Mr Ron Creasey.

Sound and Lighting Team

Mr Tim Swinton, Mr Andrew Hunt, Mathew Smith, Edwin Barnes, Sam Smith, Jack Carrigan, Alex Field, Dan Phillips, Jakob Cross.

Backstage

Head of backstage: Zara Browell. Assistant head of backstage: Callum Wood. Team: Megan Hallows, Ruarii Ryan, Grace Browell, Anna Brotherton, Lou Middleton, Will Larkin, Jess Partington.

Production Photographs, Programme and Poster Design

Will Larkin

Promotional Team

Will Larkin, Edwin Barnes

Hair and Make-Up

Sarah Denton, Erinn Parry, Lucy Embleton and Anna Simpson

Costumes

Sarah Denton, Pip Terry, Caitlin Brown, Zara Browell and the parents of the cast who remember the 70s!

Set Design and Build

Mrs Ruth Brown, Mr Richard Hay, Mr Simon Marshall, Callum Wood, Fynn Riseborough, Megan Hallows, Ruarii Ryan, Anna Brotherton, Zara Browell, Grace Browell, Lou Middleton.