Note: The following review dates from September 2000 and cast details may have changed.
To most of us The Phantom of the Opera is synonymous with Andrew Lloyd Webber's phenomenally successful operetta. It may then come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Ken Hill's original 1976 version of Gaston Leroux's chilling roman à clef, actually spearheaded the way for the Lloyd Webber hit.
However, Hill's Phantom couldn't be stylistically further apart from its more prolific cousin. A tragi-comic parody, it exposes the pretension of the opera world and offers a refreshing alternative to the serious stuff. The storyline closely follows Leroux's novel and includes the torture chamber and the Persian, although the masquerade ball which is a highlight in Lloyd Webber's version does not feature, and Alan Miller Bunford's set design and Reuven Robert Britten's costumes pale in comparison.
For those who have yet to encounter the man with the mask, the Phantom is a facially disfigured recluse who resides beneath the Paris Opera House. He develops an all-consuming, unrequited love for his young musical protégé: a beautiful opera singer called Christine. But Christine loves the opera manager's son Raoul, and in a jealous rage, the Phantom whisks her away to his underground chapel where he plans to make her his bride.
Donning the white mask is Michael McCarthy who delivers a suitably controlling and commanding performance. A powerful physical presence, McCarthy's haunting voice is as passionate as it is devilish.
Sarah Ryan's Christine is soft, feminine and eager to please but with an inner strength. Her Christine works well with Jay Marcus's Raoul who is laughingly waggish one minute, over-brimming with passion the next. His rendition of "How Dare She" in the first act is particularly good.
Out of a sound supporting cast, Fascinating Aida's Adele Anderson makes light work of Madame Giry. Her Madame is like a French-styled Morticia, all gothic looking and foreboding.
Although not in the same league as Lloyd Webber's heart-stopping scores, Hill's version features some nicely composed arias. "To Pain My Heart Selfishly Dooms Me" draws together the inter-connected suffering of the love triangle, and the Phantom's "While Floating High Above" and Christine's "All of My Dreams Faded Suddenly" are moving yet unsentimental.
The final verdict: although it lacks the psychological depth and attractive packaging of Lloyd Webber's big-budget extravaganza, Hill's Phantom has much to recommend it.