TWELVE teenagers are trying to make sense of their world in a Roman Catholic boarding school in the United States. In a setting in which sex is easy and drugs are easier, Jason and Peter (Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand) need to keep their love secret. Nadia (Georgie Lovatt) is lonely but defiant. Ivy and Matt (Lizzie Emery and Tom Hier) are in love with the wrong people.
Around them, the class in their final year before graduating are experiencing all the highs and lows of growing into an adult world. The school production of Romeo and Juliet is in chaotic rehearsal, and is a signpost to the tragedy that lies ahead.
Bare: a Pop Opera is a sung-through musical by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere. The questioning and passion of teenage life are well captured in the dark, energetic score. First performed 20 years ago in Los Angeles, it has been revived any times around the world, and is to be made into a feature film. Its cult status is established, but this production is unlikely to secure it new devotees in the UK.
The problem lies in some eccentric directorial choices. Julie Atherton has set it on a T-shaped stage, which seems both cramped and empty at the same time. The audience is split in two, and the action takes place behind many of their heads. The five-piece band is on a raised platform at a remote edge, and issues with the sound make some of the lyrics inaudible. Libby Watson’s design features twirling lockers, hiding places for a plot that relies on eavesdropping and secrecy, but the frescoes of saints which look down on the characters are too cartoon-like to give the heaven’s-eye-view that they are intended to convey.
The performance does have high points that suggest what this under-powered production might have been. Stacy Francis, as a sympathetic nun who recognises Peter’s predicament for what it is, soars through the top notes of “God Don’t Make No Trash” with abandon (“God’s got your back, baby, and so do I”). The entire young cast is committed and in fine voice; and there is a beautifully touching duet in which Peter telephones his mother (Jo Napthine) to come out as gay, while she invents chatter and distractions to prevent her hearing the truth that she already knows.
An epilogue added to the original text makes a direct connection between the fictional story and the ongoing tragedy of LGBT teenagers overwhelmed by the circumstances in which they find themselves. It left many of the audience in tears. At a time of distressing headlines about homophobic attacks, and with a Church still divided over how to respond, it was a tantalising indication of what this show might have been.
“Bare: a Pop Opera” continues at The Vaults Theatre, Leake Street, London SE1, until 4 August. Book tickets at www.the vaults.london or phone 020 7401 9603.