Realms of Glory is a new musical with a few unique selling points, alongside some familiar story arcs for the festive season. Set at Christmas in 1940 at the time of the Blitz means that danger looms but because this is Manchester, as does humour and resilience.
We meet the stoic Lizzie Horton, and in a slightly similar way to Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, we are taken on a tour of her life. But this is not revisiting her past because she has been cruel, she is a selfless and kind hearted women. She just wants to the war to end and longs for normality to return.
She meets RAF pilot Bob Horton (Alex Cosgriff) and the two of them form an instant connection and soon they find themselves getting wed. Her best friend Mavis (Rebecca McAuley) has also found a beau in the form of Jim Snow (Ben Kawalec) who likes a good corny joke and they end up having a double wedding.
Amelia Simpson is a revelation as Lizzie, you are drawn into her world. And she has a fragility to her vocals and that makes her character even more endearing. She just feels real, thanks to this brilliant performance and Ollie Mills and Rachel Mann’s naturalistic writing.
Rebecca McAuley and Ben Kawalec are both great as the other couple; Mavis and Jim. They do feel a bit like supporting romantic comedy characters, in that their roles seem reactionary in the form of chats and giggles. They never feel quite as fully developed as Lizzie and Bob.
Alex Cosgriff manages to be both romantic, funny and yet at the same time distant as Bob. This is hard role to deliver, as the scars of war and constantly being away mean that many soldiers lose part of themselves and Alex conveys this with real ease.
Ella Heywood has the most difficult role as Ida Barnes, as she is always around when tragedy strikes speaking to lost souls, trapped in the rubble following bomb blasts. A crack in her voice suggests that what she says and what she really thinks will happen is quite poignant. But Ida feels too underwritten and therefore you do not really know what makes her tick.
Some of the songs have the feel of the Andrew Sisters and the likes of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, and some of these really fly in the capable hands of this great cast. These are not big heartfelt songs designed to shake the roof off, they are more subtle than that and they do move you.
Ollie Mills’ production really works when the cast fill the stage and sing together. Awkwardly placed cabaret tables in the middle of the floor mean that the cast cannot really step forward. This would work much better if the stage was extended, as the audience connection would then increase. Vicki Healy’s choreography would work better with more space for the cast to move and breathe, too.
The mics crackle and hiss on the night I attended and it does distract and at times feels reminiscent of the scene in Singin in the Rain when sound becomes commonplace and even a moving necklace pierces the eardrums.
The lead character Lizzie is given so much drama, she does feel a bit like Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers but Ameila Simpson grounds her and stops the show veering into melodrama.
It is great to see a full blown musical in 53 two, as the building really suits the 1940s setting, as we feel as if we are underground. And there is a real sense of pride that this is a Manchester story. Realms of Glory shows a great deal of promise, as it ambitious, funny, romantic and quite unique in a cramped Christmas market, where there is so much to see. With a few tweaks, it could become as sweeping, searing and moving as you want it to be.