Excitement and anticipation were running high Wednesday evening at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) for the opening night of Sussex Musical Theatre Society’s (SMuTS’s) Spring production: Jekyll & Hyde. As always, SMuTS had given themselves a tough reputation to contend with following the sell-out success of West Side Story last year, and opting for a relatively lesser known musical theatre production was a brave choice. Stripped back, sombre and philosophically meandering, Jekyll & Hyde ran the risk of coming off as a little sleepy, but with the phenomenal talents and enthusiasm of the cast and crew, the gamble truly paid off.
The gothic novella on which the show is based may be almost indulgently centred on the psyche of its elusive protagonist, but the stage show would be nothing without its ensemble cast. Here the show does something very clever – it takes the murky morals and sinister dualism of the iconic Dr. Jekyll, and inflates them into a reflection of a corrupt and impoverished London society.
With tight vocals and constant energy, the chorus are clad in classic Victorian dress, instantly immersing us in the shady and chaotic streets of 19th century London. Something between Oliver!’s ‘Consider Yourself’ and Les Miserables’ ‘Look Down’, the townsfolks’ rendition of ‘Façade’ is lively and captivating, but also somewhat haunting. This is no happy-go-lucky, jazz-hands musical theatre – this is a show with unrelenting thrill, power and soul.
Lead actor, George Martin Marino, does a spectacular job of capturing both the well-meaning and extraordinary Dr. Jekyll and his sinister alter-ego Mr. Hyde. In the wrong hands, the part could easily come off as cartoonish, but Marino is really able to tap into that raw maniacal energy of Hyde in a way that nudges on but doesn’t overstep the boundary of the hysterical. His performance is both frightening and enthralling – Marino’s fierce physicality and vocals after he undergoes his first dramatic transformation seem to awaken that wild ecstasy of a Mr. Hyde within us all.
Ellen Oxenham delivers a sensational performance as Jekyll’s unlikely friend, Camden dancer and prostitute, Lucy Harris. From her bold and sensual opening number ‘Bring On the Men’, performed amidst a terrific dance ensemble of prostitutes, to her powerful and moving rendition of ‘Someone Like You’, Oxenham’s fantastic stage presence and singing ability make her character deeply sympathetic and endearing.
Juliet Llewellyn-West also impresses with raw emotion and stunning vocal ability as Jekyll’s fiercely independent fiancé Emma Carew. I was left pining for a little more exposition and exploration into her intriguingly complex character, but Llewellyn-West did exceptionally well with the limited material the script allowed her.
A creative set design of clockwork silhouettes and bizarre scientific artefacts worked alongside the shadowy lighting to install an immersive landscape whose themes and mood were immediately and intimately felt. Microphone scuffles and slow transitions were unfortunately too frequent to ignore, but were likely mere teething problems that will hopefully be overcome throughout the week. Luckily the live band, whose phenomenal contribution really cannot be overstated, did an impressive job of keeping the audience hooked throughout the odd slip up.
All in all, Jekyll & Hyde marks yet another successful venture for SMuTS, demonstrating levels of dedication and versatility of skill that are rarely seen in amateur theatre. The team’s chemistry and passion for what they do shines through with every word, step and note, and they mark themselves a true asset to The University of Sussex and to the world of musical theatre.
Images Credit: Malcom Tam