Souvenir T-shirts and overpriced programmes. Ice cream tubs and politely grinning ushers. We’re front of house for the new Britney Spears musical, Oops!… I Did It Again, but tonight the ushers yank the spotlight away from the stage, instead turning it to other goings-on inside the theatre walls, not least of all themselves. Ushers, the retuning musical directed by Max Reynolds, is a witty insight into the aspirations, hopes and day-to-day reality of working front of house. After all, no one comes to London with dreams of making it big as an usher.
From the moment the lights are dimmed, Ushers is fuelled by punchy, theatrical in-jokes and risqué sexual innuendos. As a show, it’s unpretentiously crafted and flawlessly executed; playfully mocking the genre it exists within, whilst conforming to the conventions of a West End musical excellently.
Through the course of the night, we meet the various caricatures you’d expect to find busying themselves around a theatre, from the obnoxious American tourist to the snobby theatre critic. A nod, or affectionate jibe, is made in the direction of many a musical, from Disney’s Frozen to Les Misérables. The latter being the butt of a joke between Lucy (Corrine Priest) and Rosie (Alexandra Parkes), in which Rosie brags about her 24,601 followers of twitter and Lucy dramatically repeats the figure, recalling ‘Look Down’ from Les Misérables.
Throughout the script, Ushers is flexible and of-the-moment with its references. I imagine that last night’s mention of Liza Minnelli cancelling her UK tour – news which was announced earlier that day – will soon be swapped out of the script to make room for the next bit of showbiz scandal. Similarly, the pertinent dig at American Idiot, the rival show battling for centre stage at the Arts Theatre, will be interchangeable with a dig at any show Ushers plays alongside.
Whilst doing away with old-fashioned conventions, Ushers features a concoction of all the characters you’d expect to find in a musical. For example, we’re presented with two love stories; the classic boy-meets-girl scenario of Stephen (Cameron Sharp) and Lucy, but also the half-finished story of soon-to-be-separated lovers Gary (Ben Fenner) and Ben (Rory Maguire).
Of course, a musical wouldn’t be a musical without a villain and in Ushers, this archetype takes the form of Robin (Harry Stone), the theatre manager who “cares as much about theatre as a Tory Arts Minister”. Stone delights his audience, in video and on stage alike. His twiddling fingers and nimble step are pickpocketed from Fagin himself, whilst his rolled ‘R’s and entirely black attire gives him a free pass to roam around old Disney villain territory. However it is Parkes’ performance as Rosie that steals the show. She comfortably pushes the boundaries of raunchiness, whilst acting as a reminder that women can be every bit the feisty, sexual predator that their male counterparts can.
In reality, ushers deal more with the demands of the punters than West End stars, and so it would be inattentive for the show not to use its audience as props to taunt and stir some laughs. Unsurprisingly, the cast double up as our dedicated ushers before and after their performance; an effort which won them individual praise and thanks from the audience as we left the auditorium. More excitingly, though, is the revenge of the ushers on the ‘late comers’, who are named and shamed before being allowed to hobble through the aisle to their seats.
Naturally, given the genre, Ushers sings us into a happy ending, complete with jazz hands and tap shoes. What’s particularly special about this production, though, is that this talented, fresh-faced cast are on the stage, either making their professional debut or continuing to lay the foundations of a career in acting. They’re out there each night, living the dreams of their characters and ‘The Parts [they] Could Play’.
Ushers is playing the Arts Theatre until 18 October. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website. Photo by John Hunter.