A couple of weeks after a priest in the USA tweeted that “Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June”, Bare: A Pop Opera – the story of two teenage boys at a Catholic boarding school who are forced to keep their love a secret – feels depressingly topical. Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere’s show premiered in California nearly two decades ago, but there’s nothing historic about the issues it tackles, as is emotionally demonstrated in the powerful finale of this new London production at The Vaults.
Set against the backdrop of a school production of Romeo and Juliet, Bare‘s own star-crossed lovers are Peter (Daniel Mack Shand) and Jason (Darragh Cowley), who know all too well the dangers of making their relationship public. While Peter tries to come out to his mum (Jo Napthine), Jason allows himself to be drawn into an ill-fated liaison with Ivy (Lizzie Emery) – with inevitably tragic consequences. Meanwhile, as the seniors prepare to graduate, Jason’s twin sister Nadia (Georgie Lovatt) and classmate Matt (Tom Hier) each deal in their own way with living in the golden boy’s shadow.
The show tackles several important issues, and on the whole does so pretty well, though the storyline feels at times a bit predictable. Intrabartolo’s rock score, performed by Alasdair Brown’s band from the balcony at one end of the theatre, is not instantly memorable but still exciting enough to hold our attention, and there are several highlights among the extensive list of musical numbers; it has the feel of a soundtrack that would really grow on you after a few repeat listens. Though the cast is universally solid, it’s the female vocalists who really stand out, especially Georgie Lovatt (in a sensational professional debut), Lizzie Emery and – not altogether surprisingly – X Factor USA finalist Stacy Francis as the delightfully exasperated Sister Chantelle.
Julie Atherton’s production gets a lot of things right, and showcases some considerable talent among its young cast. Unfortunately, though, the staging at The Vaults feels badly thought through, and results in an audience experience that isn’t nearly as enjoyable or comfortable as the show and its hardworking cast deserve. A very long, narrow stage and poor venue acoustics mean that frequently lyrics and dialogue go unheard by half the audience because the actor’s so far away, and with the stage raised at eye level, parts of the action get completely hidden from view by whatever’s happening in the foreground. In addition, there’s a thrust stage out into the auditorium that means part of the audience must watch a lot of the action over their shoulder – including the big finale, which takes place towards the back of the room – and run the risk of being dazzled by spotlights at fairly regular intervals.
It’s a pity that we don’t get to see everything that happens, because what we do see is visually very striking. At the rear of Libby Watson’s otherwise functional set, forbidding religious art looks down on the teenagers, while at the other end stands a single tree covered in glorious autumnal foliage, the significance of which only becomes clear in the show’s emotional closing moments. Andrew Ellis’ lighting design brings extra vibrancy to certain key scenes, particularly when coupled with Stuart Rogers’ choreography.
Recent headlines have made it all too clear that Bare is a story the world still needs to hear, and this production is a decent attempt at telling it. In a different venue, it’s easy to imagine the show making quite an impact; unfortunately in its current home, it just misses the mark.
Bare: A Pop Opera is at The Vaults until 4th August.