In an unprecedented theatrical debut, Ballare poses as the transformative set for Furth and Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.  The musical numbers differ from the traditional Propaganda playlist, somewhat elevating the tone, with Director Alistair Henfrey deploying the unconventional set and talented cast to great dramatic effect.

 The cast’s characterisation is superb: the adopted personas are simultaneously flawed and likeable, deplorable yet somehow endearing

The team and cast grapple impressively with the innate complexity of the play. Most notably, the events of the plot take place in reverse chronological order: the protagonist, Frank Shepard, starts out a penniless composer and winds up a wealthy film producer, with the show charting the transformation of his humble origins as time rolls back 20 years. The comedy and exuberance of the more lavish scenes are carefully juxtaposed with the tragedy of what could have been, as Frank and those around him find themselves corrupted by the superficial glitz of success and plagued by their abandonment of the things that mattered most to them. This initially grim portrait is offset by the subsequent unravelling of the yarn, as the audience are led to retrospectively comprehend how such events and relationships crystallised, enjoying snatches of gaiety along the way.

The cast embrace the challenge of showcasing what is almost the opposite of character development, as the years unfold in reverse. Henfrey has consciously structured rehearsals to aid the actors’ understanding of the plot’s linear trajectory, while also running starkly contrasting scenes in quick succession to facilitate understanding of how much the characters change from beginning to end. As a result, the cast’s characterisation is superb: the adopted personas are simultaneously flawed and likeable, deplorable yet somehow endearing. The richness of the female characters in particular makes the play an engaging commentary on pervasive issues: Gussie is introduced far from flatteringly, as she blinds a female rival with iodine in the opening scene, yet one feels increasing sympathy for her as it is revealed that she has been a victim of the ruthless beauty standards that characterise the film industry. “One day I just made myself up,” she says, “now I never change.” The fleeting fame afforded by her extensive cosmetic alteration is one of the many ways in which the play interrogates social norms that still persist today.

The transformation of one of Cambridge’s most-frequented nightclubs into a theatre is arguably the most intriguing aspect of this production and the team do not plan on squandering this unique opportunity.  The innovative staging incorporates all elements of the beloved venue, not least the ramp and DJ booth, with actors taking advantage of the spatial flexibility to intermingle with the audience and lend the spectacle an engaging playfulness. Levels are created by light-up boxes, in a visually exciting conflation of the nightclub and theatre aesthetic. Ballare is a surprisingly pertinent location, as it plays into the hedonism which suffuses the show’s depiction of Hollywood. While all can agree that Ballare somewhat lacks luxurious glamour, it quite nicely reflects the humbler origins from which Frank’s talent originally stems, with the dizzying excess of consumption associated with both student nightlife and flashy American stardom providing a workable parallel.

Attending the show is time and money undeniably well-spent

The classic playlist of pop anthems is refreshingly absent, replaced instead with a live band featuring three keyboards, bass guitar and drum kit. Assistant Musical Director Sam Kirby has worked hard to adapt the original score, compiling multiple parts into one for electric keyboard, in order to make the soundtrack workable for their more modest musical setup. This is one of a few practical adjustments which the team have had to consider – Ballare’s wall-to-wall mirrors might facilitate admiration of one’s sweaty face and expert dance moves on a night out, but act as a foil for costume change in such an open space. The relatively neutral costumes of the cast effectively overcome this obstacle and encompass the transition from 60s to 80s mapped by the production – albeit in reverse.


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Henfrey believes that the play has the capacity to resonate with a contemporary student audience in particular, as a demographic comprising of individuals on the cusp of making crucial decisions about their own futures. The spectacle hinges on dramatic irony, as various junctures of the play are lent tragic significance by the audience having already been presented with the outcome. Yet the conclusion of the play at the chronological beginning highlights the importance of staying true to artistic visions – the initially hopeful idealism of the individuals is uplifting.

Attending the show is time and money undeniably well-spent, particularly as the tickets buy you an experience that transcends merely the theatrical. Tickets for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday include access to a new lounge bar, while tickets for Friday and Saturday include entry to the club afterwards.  Not only can you “meet and greet” the actors – as one cast member excitedly commented – but you can allow yourself to be truly immersed in the spectacle as its vibrant entertainment extends beyond the stage.

Merrily We Roll Along is on at Ballare (Cindies) 15-19 May

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