Left – Andrew McGrail
There's a piece of theatre history quietly being performed in suburban Melbourne and, if you're quick, you'll be able to rediscover this century-old Australian blockbuster. Based on the story of the Arabian Nights, Chu Chin Chow was written by Geelong-born Oscar Asche in the early 1900s and it ran for an unprecedented 2,238 performances at His Majesty's theatre, London – from August 1916 to July 1921.
With a chorus line of scantily clad dancing girls and fast-moving plot featuring intrigue, spies, murder and marriage, the play is credited with lifting the spirits of war-torn London and was particularly popular with visiting soldiers. It has since become the stuff of legends, well-known in the 'trade' but rarely performed, and Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria director Robert Ray had to do much detective work to track down the score and parts.
Asche played a dominant role in the original proceedings (not only did he and his wife Lily Brayton manage the theatre, but he wrote the script, produced the show, and cast himself and his wife in the leading roles) so it is fitting that Melvyn Morrow rewrote the story to include Asche on stage as narrator, supposedly presenting the piece to a Melbourne theatre board from whom he hopes to win a contract. Such a scenario may well have happened; it was first performed in Australia at the Tivoli on December 26, 1920.
A Melbourne Grammar alumni who studied drama in Norway and London and played many Shakespearean roles before becoming manager of the Adelphi Theatre in 1904, Asche was famously argumentative and self righteous, and is portrayed rambunctiously well by Kent Martin. At times it is useful to have his commentary to explain the initially confusing backstory and characters – and his lines add some interesting historical context – but at others times his presence feels overwritten and interfering, interrupting the flow of events and slowing the storyline. Nevertheless his character serves a useful logistical role in creating an excuse for the relatively small cast numbers – compared to the original at least. The original production had more than 90 players on the stage – and included live snakes and other animals – and while the GSOV cannot stretch to these numbers, it comes pretty close in its volunteer production team.
While pompous himself, Asche's presence actually reduces the pomposity of the original script, which is brimming with Victorian self importance, and he introduces an element of humour. As an amateur dramatic company there are moments when the cast seems to be hamming it up a little – then Asche chivvies the players off stage or reprimands them for being tardy and you wonder if the cast are acting the role – or assuming the role of the 1900s actor's role? With farce to the fore, it pays to err on the side of magnanimity. For the most part the cast shows exceptional talent and is certainly not lacking in enthusiasm.
Music student Ella Broome as slave girl Marjanah carries the bulk of the female solos and does so with gusto, although the diction is sometimes lost. However it is Jessica Lesley Harris as Alcolom – married to Kasim Baba but in love with his brother Ali Baba – whose solos carry the most emotion. Cast skills are used most efficiently too: dancing girls with ballet-trained grace lead in more physical scenes and slide to the back when singing is called for; a couple of the male chorus have comic acting skills that more than equal their strong, solid voices. While his voice is not the strongest on stage, Ron Mack shines as Ali Baba, and Summer Bowen also inhabits the role of scheming slave girl Zahrat al Kulub (or is that the role of actor Sarah Doran playing Zahrat al Kulub?).
The stage crew struggled to tame a wayward projector on the play's first night in Elwood – it has already had a well-supported run in Asche's home town of Geelong – but I feel few in the audience noticed. Costume designer Ros Thompson deserves special mention for her colourful creations and musical director Sorcha Delaney's efforts as musical director and repetiteur also paid off.
If you love a musical extravaganza and want to witness a rare recreation of theatre history, you have until July 31 to see it. Don't wait another 100 years for the next performance.
Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria presents
Chu Chin Chow
by Melvyn Morrow | original story & lyrics by Oscar Asche
Director Robert Ray
Venue: Phoenix Theatre | 101 Glen Huntly Road, Elwood VIC
Dates: 28 – 31 July 2016
Times: Friday, Saturday 8pm; weekend matinees 2pm
Tickets: $20 – $42
Bookings: gsov.org.au | at the door