Dick Bonham writes about a musical with a difference, the performance at London's Palace Theatre on 30th March 2003 of ESTHER.

A new musical version of a sometimes forgotten Old Testament tale, Paul Knight's and Peter Hutchinson's recent production of Esther enjoyed a rapturous reception from a packed London crowd at its first performance in London in March. Of the many books in the Bible, this was one that was crying out to be translated into dramatic form. The tale of a Jewish orphan destined to rise from obscurity to save her people from oppression, this really does have it all - love, betrayal, death, heroism and a sense of ordinary people swept up in historic events.

Housing the show was London's lavish Palace Theatre, normally home to long-running musical Les Miserables. The achievement of staging a full-scale production in such a setting is remarkable. With just a day to prepare in the venue itself, the most efficient theatre company might be expected to struggle, and the occasion wasn't without its technical hiccups, with the start of the show being unexpectedly delayed. Just a few minutes into the performance, however, all such problems were forgotten, the sheer charisma of the piece rapidly winning over a sympathetic crowd. Indeed, by the close of the play, the audience were demanding extra encores from the actors, who were clearly unprepared for the warm reception they were given. Seldom, if ever, have I seen such a genuine and heartfelt reaction from the theatre-going public.

As the producers were not allowed by the venue to move any of the standing set, the piece was performed in front of black drapes, the musicians sharing the stage with the actors. A plain throne provided the only visual accoutrement, and characters were clothed in modern dress. This was a decision that left things nicely understated and director Peter Hutchinson was wise not to attempt to compensate for the lack of set with an overblown display of distracting costumes.

The simple setting and onstage presence of the orchestra inevitably placed greater emphasis on the music than the all-round spectacle often associated with such productions. In this context, it was the sheer power and dexterity of the composition that shone and which was this production's greatest asset. Composer and lyricist Paul Knight has constructed a versatile and varied score that handles well transitions of mood and feel. In fact, such was the exuberance of the All Soul's Orchestra's full-bodied renditions (led by conductor Noel Tredinnick), that the scenes featuring only dialogue occasionally suffered in comparison, sometimes lacking the pace and verve of the musical numbers. Perhaps in part this was due to the limited rehearsal time available; apparently, preparation by the actors took only two weeks, where productions would often expect at least double this.

Given these circumstances the producers did an admirable job in putting together such an entertaining evening, one that bodes well for future versions of the play. The writing is skilful and controlled and fully deserves to be seen by wider audiences. Given the time to develop its confidence and the opportunity to incorporate further design elements, this is a work that that could easily take flight and fully deserves to be a major hit.

The evening also yielded some notable performances from the cast. In particular, it is worth singling out Lindsey Danvers, who shone as Queen Vashti. Spurned by her husband, the King Xerxes, this was a proud character perhaps not immediately obvious as one of the story's more sympathetic. With Danvers in fine voice, however, she was most affecting, particularly during her first act song "Look At Me". Lizzie Deane is also worth mentioning as Esther's friend Hannah; many times, she succeeded in bringing to her role a humour sometimes missing in the serious portrayals of her acting companions.

Thematically, Esther engages with more than mere entertainment. Clearly, the attempt of powerful leaders to systematically exterminate an entire culture has much resonance with many conflicts and atrocities visited on the human race in the last 100 years. Such allusion is made even clearer in one of the closing songs of the first act, entitled "Ethnic Cleansing".

Also interesting "for such a time as this" is the extent to which the play promoted and engaged with the position of women in a patriarchal society. The men of the tale come out quite badly - Xerxes, the king of Persia was portrayed by Michael Rouse as weak and indecisive, while the villain of the piece, Haman (Stuart Pendred) is an egotistical, self-serving bigot. In contrast, the strength and bravery shown by the female characters, including Esther (in an assured performance by Brenda-Jane Newhouse) and, perhaps more surprisingly, Vashti, is of a far more noble and virtuous nature. In this way, the play challenges certain preconceptions about the Bible and God's attitude towards women, perhaps based on the (wilful?) misreading of certain passages in the New Testament. It is Esther who is sent by her God to deliver her people from genocide, emerging with strength and dignity in responding to her destiny.

This was an ambitious and generally successful launch evening for the ongoing work of production company Pneuma Arts, who on the strength of this powerful evening at the Palace could quickly become a theatrical force to be reckoned with. While Esther has previously been presented in a concert version, and as part of the Spitafields Arts Festival, this was a major landmark in their mission to introduce new and innovative work to mainstream audiences. If the proposed national tour of Esther should happen, then you'd be fully advised to snap up tickets as soon as you can. CR